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Systematic review guide: 1. Planning


Before starting work on a systematic review first check to ensure that a systematic review does not already exist, or is currently under investigation.
The list below contains databases and sites you can search for systematic reviews. 

Health & Medicine 
Other disciplines 

Developing a clear, well formed, focused and answerable question will make searching for evidence easier. 
Ensure that your question addresses the topic of interest, is relevant and it will add new research on the topic area. 

At this point it is common to think about your inclusion and exclusion criteria, in some instances you may develop these after an initial search of your topic area. 

When constructing a research question it is common to break the elements down. One of the most common models used to assist you in this process is the PICO model.  The image below describes each section. 
For more detail on using the PICO model see the next tab titled frameworks for health and medicine.



Frameworks for Health & Medicine 

PICO Model
A technique often used in health research for formulating a clinical question is the PICO Model. The PICO Model has 4 elements which are detailed below.

The Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions (2022, Chapter 2) includes the following factors to consider when developing criteria for your PICO elements.

Patient,  Population or Problem
  • How is the disease/condition defined?
  • What are the most important characteristics that describe the people?
  • Are there any relevant demographic factors (eg. age, sex, ethnicity)?
  • What is the setting (eg. hospital, community, etc)?
  • Who should make the diagnosis?
  • Are there any other types of people who should be excluded from the review (because they are likely to react to the intervention in a different way)?
  • How will studies involving only a subset of relevant participants be handled?
Interventions and Comparisons
  • What are the experimental and control (comparator) interventions of interest?
  • Does the intervention have variations (eg. dosage/intensity, mode of delivery, personnel who deliver it, frequency of delivery, duration of delivery, timing of delivery)?
  • Are all variations to be included (for example is there a critical dose below which the intervention may not be clinically appropriate)?
  • How will trials including only part of the intervention be handled?
  • How will trials including the intervention of interest combined with another intervention (co-intervention) be handled?
  • Main outcomes, for inclusion in the 'Summary of findings' table, are those that are essential for decision-making, and should usually have an emphasis on patient-important outcomes.
  • Primary outcomes are the two or three outcomes from among the main outcomes that the review would be likely to be able to address if sufficient studies are identified, in order to reach a conclusion about the effects (beneficial and adverse) of the intervention(s).
  • Secondary outcomes include the remaining main outcomes (other than primary outcomes) plus additional outcomes useful for explaining effects.
  • Ensure that outcomes cover potential as well as actual adverse effects.
  • Consider outcomes relevant to all potential decision makers, including economic data.
  • Consider the type and timing of outcome measurements.

Source:  Higgins JPT, Thomas J, Chandler J, Cumpston M, Li T, Page MJ, Welch VA (editors). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions version 6.3 (updated February 2022). Cochrane, 2022. Available from


PCC Model
The PCC model is is a framework recommended by the Joanna Briggs Institute (JBI) when developing a research question. The key concepts of this model are listed below. 

Population Important characteristics of participants, including age and other qualifying criteria.
Concept Use the ideas from your primary questions to determine your concept. The core concept examined by the scoping review should be clearly articulated to guide the scope and breadth of the inquiry. This may include details that pertain to elements that would be detailed in a standard systematic review, such as the "interventions" and/or "phenomena of interest" and/or "outcomes".​
Context May include... cultural factors such as geographic location and/or specific racial or gender-based interests. In some cases, context may also encompass details about the specific setting​.

Source: Aromataris E, Munn Z (Editors). (2020). JBI manual for evidence synthesis. Joanna Briggs Institute.

Frameworks for Social Sciences

The following frameworks are commonly used in social sciences areas to help develop a research question. 


This variation of the PICO model is often useful for qualitative studies. The PICo has 3 elements to define your question.

Population or Problem What is the problem, or condition you are looking into and how is your population defined.
Interest What is the process or experience you are focusing on?
Context Where is this happening?

For more information on the PICo framework read:
Lockwood, C., Munn, Z., & Porritt, K. (2015). Qualitative research synthesis: Methodological guidance for systematic reviewers utilizing meta-aggregation. International Journal of Evidence-Based Healthcare, 13(3), 179-187.


The SPICE framework can also be used for the development of a qualitative research research question. 

Setting Where is this taking place?
Perspective Who are the patients, or how are you defining the population?
Intervention How is the this being dealt with?
Comparison What are you comparing this with?
Evaluation How was success measured?

For more information about the SPICE framework read:
Booth, A. (2006). Clear and present questions: Formulating questions for evidence based practice. Library Hi Tech, 24(3), 355-368.



The SPIDER question format was adapted from the PICO tool to search for qualitative and mixed-methods research.
Using this framework to develop a research question will use the below concepts.

Sample Who are you participants?
Phenomenon of Interest What are their attitudes and experiences in relation to the issues being focused on.
Design What type of study are you doing?
Evaluation Which result are you focusing on and how are you measuring it.
Research Type Is it qualitative, quantitative or a mixture of both?

For more information on the SPIDER framework read: 
Cooke, A., Smith, D., & Booth, A. (2012). Beyond PICO: The SPIDER Tool for Qualitative Evidence Synthesis. Qualitative Health Research, 22(10), 1435–1443.

A protocol is a detailed plan of what you plan to undertake within a systematic review.  

A systematic review protocol describes the rationale, hypothesis, and planned methods of the review. It should be prepared before a review is started and used as a guide to carry out the review. 

Publishing or registering a protocol in a register or a journal will help avoid duplication of research.  The Cochrane Handbook of Systematic Reviews, Part 2, Chapter 1.5 states that preparing a protocol “reduces the impact of review authors’ biases, promotes transparency of methods and processes reduces the potential for duplication and allows peer review of the planned methods.”  
For more information on the importance of publishing a protocol read,  The PLoS Medicine Editors (2011) Best practice in systematic reviews: The importance of protocols and registration. PLoS Med 8(2): e1001009. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001009

If you are thinking of publishing your systematic review make sure you review the write and publish tab for more information.

There are various places you can publish and find protocols, some are listed below.

The following are useful links to help you understand requirements of a systematic review.   This list consists of links to guidelines and reporting standards.