Scoping search

You will already have a broad review topic in mind.  Before finalising your research question conduct a "scoping search" - a brief search of databases in your subject area - to check:

  • that your topic has NOT already been the subject of a completed systematic review
  • your topic is NOT the subject of a forthcoming systematic review
  • there is sufficient literature on your topic to make a systematic review viable (particularly if you are a student who has been given an indication of how many studies you require to review for your assignment)
  • (for academic staff) that your proposed topic may usefully contribute to knowledge and understanding in your field

This is NOT the fully comprehensive search you will conduct later as part of the actual systematic review - you are simply checking that your question is relevant and you are not duplicating the work of others.


  • the main databases listed on our page on searching systematically - try combinations of keywords to assess the volume and type of material available.
  • the websites of major organisations conducting systematic reviews. Search any databases of completed reviews, calls for reviews on new topics and listings of reviews underway but not yet completed or reported.
  • PROSPERO,  the "international database of prospectively registered systematic reviews in health and social care, welfare, public health, education, crime, justice, and international development, where there is a health related outcome". Search PROSPERO to establish if any reviews are planned, or underway, on your topic.

Finalising your question: PICO or PICo

Having established that you are not duplicating existing work, refine your research topic and question.

Imagine you are interested in the use of dolls with people with dementia residing in care homes.

If you are examining if there is a reduction in distress among residents the PICO model will help:

* There may not always be a comparison or it could in some circumstances be a placebo or the usual, if any, therapy.

In our example:

Population  - people with dementia residing in care homes

Intervention - the use of dolls

Comparison - none

Outcome - reduction in distress

Your question would thus be:

Does the therapeutic use of dolls reduce distress among adults with dementia residing in care homes?

(For further information on PICO and examples see University of Canberra Library 2018.)

For qualitative research without defined outcomes the PICo model may assist question formation (for example where the research is concerned with experiences or processes):

Example: What are the attitudes of family members to the use of doll therapy with people with dementia in care homes?

Population (family members of people with dementia), Interest (attitudes to doll therapy), Context (care homes).

Finalising your question: other models

Although PICO is perhaps the most common model used, there are a number of alternatives.  These include:

PICOS: where S stands for Study design

PICOT: where T stands for Time frame (a period over which outcomes are assessed such as 48 hours after surgery)

SPICE: Setting, Perspective, Intervention, Comparison, Evaluation

SPIDER: Sample, Phenomenon of Interest, Design, Evaluation, Research type

(For further information and examples please see Curtin University Library 2017; Stern, Jordan and McArthur 2014.)

How should I draft my protocol?

The PRISMA-P (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic review and Meta-Analysis Protocols) 2015 checklist provides a useful framework for drafting a protocol.

You may also find it useful to have a look at the Joanna Briggs Institute Reviewer's Manual for advice on protocols, examples of published Cochrane Collaboration Protocols, the Campbell Collaboration's protocol guidelines and details for forthcoming reviews on PROSPERO.

While formats may differ the following details should be included:

  • The review title
  • The reviewer(s)
  • The objectives and research question
  • Background
  • Inclusion and exclusion criteria
  • Methods
  • Search strategy
  • Assessment of quality
  • Data extraction and synthesis
  • Any conflicts of interest