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Conducting your literature review

Defining a research question

You will either be provided with a research topic by your supervisor or have an idea of a research topic that you would like to investigate. Make sure that you chose a topic that interests you as you will be spending a lot of time on the topic. A good starting place is to run a scoping or exploratory search to give you:

  • An overview of the key issues of the topic;
  • Discover how much research exists and if there is enough of a gap to conduct a review;
  • Provide the content for developing aims and objectives;
  • Identify any authors or subject terms.

Depending on what you find you may need to amend your research topic.

Once you have decided on your topic you will need to determine your research question. Your question should be clear and focussed, but also answerable and searchable. A well formulated research question, one that is clear, focussed and answerable, will help to structure your research process, determine the scope of your research, and focus your searches to help guide the selection of papers.

To help you define and develop your research question you can use frameworks such as PEO or PICO. Other frameworks are available.

Using frameworks: PEO or PICO

Two frameworks that are commonly used at Cranfield University are PEO (which tends to be used for qualitative research) and PICO (which tends to be used for quantitative research):

Population and/or problem = The subject of your enquiry e.g., an industry, organisation, community, or individuals 

Exposure = Use for a specific intervention, phenomenon etc. 

Outcomes or themes = What are the effects of the exposure on the population/problem? Are there any improvements? 

Population and/or problem = The subject of your enquiry e.g. an industry, organisation, community, or individuals 

Intervention or Exposure = What is the main intervention or issue to be considered? 

Comparison = What can you compare the intervention or issue to? (note: not all questions will need to include a comparison) 

Outcomes or themes = What are your outcomes? What do you hope to be the result of the intervention? 

This stage will also help you to identify your inclusion and exclusion criteria, the parameters for what you want to find in your search and when you would exclude a paper from your study. You will need to stick to this criterion throughout to avoid bias later.

Finally write a protocol to explain the steps that you will intake in your review, the rationale, hypothesis, and methodology. Refer to the PRISMA checklist for guidance.