A simple way to write a research question for desk top research

Aim of the article: This post helps you think about how to write a research question and shows a whizzy way to help you do this.

With so much information available on the web these days, you don’t have to have access to a university library to find research articles. (I’m not part of a university).

Here is a blog post I wrote before on getting started if you are a student or a new teacher to this area, and it is pretty much OK still today. But I think I’ll reflect the most relevant parts here. Do go to this blog post on desk top research if you want the full whammy though.

Step 1 What is your research question?

If you are doing a quick search, then you probably don’t need to sit down and think about your research question. If you are researching for an article, your own blog post or as part of your own work, a good starting point is knowing your question. All will be revealed in a few steps time as to why this is important.

Deciding your question: Think about if you want to ask a broad question, or whether you have something very specific you’d like to research.

Developing your question: You might even want to do some research and reading even to help you develop your question. I’m a big fan of Wikipedia for providing you with the context around most subjects. You might find inspiration there.

Step 2 Tools to help you write your question

This gets a bit academic, but there is a tool called the PICO framework which helps researchers build their question around relevant areas. You can read about it on my previous blog article. It was first developed to help nursing students by Melnyk and Fineout-Overholt in 2005. (See their reference and some useful links at the bottom of this post).

PICO framework diagram

P – poplation / patient group – who are you interested in studying?

I – intervention – are you looking for a herb, drug, new surgical procedure?
C – comparison – you can leave this step out for most searches.

O – outcome – what are the measurements you are interested in?

Step 3 Playing with PICO!

So I want to know if hydrotherapy is going to help with my dog Spike’s arthritis. We can use PICO to write the question:

P – dog
I – hydrotherapy
C – control
O – arthritis

So my question is, “Does hydrotherapy help with dog’s arthritis”. I might think that this isn’t quite right and I wish for a wider question and PICO can help us check that all is in order: “What therapies help with my dog’s arthritis”?

P – dog
I – therapy, hydrotherapy, massage
C – control

O – arthritis

Or I might want to go narrower: “Does hydrotherapy help with dog’s arthritis of the hip”?

P – dog
I – hydrotherapy
C – control

O – hip arthritis

Step 4 Do I have to use PICO?

There are other tools out there to help you build up your questions, and these steps are really important for writing papers and doing big research projects. But for more informal searches that we might want to do each day, I think they are just useful and keep you organised. You might want to write them down at the start, but once you’ve tried them a few times, you’ll do them without knowing.

There is another important point to them. PICO helps you create groups or categories for your keywords (patient – dog, intervention – hydrotherapy, outcome – arthritis), and if you were being really snazzy, you could then develop your search by building up lists of words in a table. We’ll see about that next time.

In research, we always attribute the work of others. We put Melnyk’s name in the text (called a citation), and here are the full details of their book that they published (called a reference).

Melnyk, B.M. & Fineout-Overholt, E. 2005, Evidence-based practice in nursing & healthcare: a guide to best practice, Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Philadelphia.

These authors wrote about other aspects of research that you might also find interesting and more easily available on the web.

Melnyk BM, Fineout-Overholt E, Stillwell SB, Williamson KM. Evidence-based practice: step by step: the seven steps of evidence-based practice. Am J Nurs. 2010 Jan;110(1):51-3. doi: 10.1097/01.NAJ.0000366056.06605.d2. PMID: 20032669.

Different types of research article and where to find them

Aim of the article – learning about different types of research article and where to find them.

For anyone interested in finding out more about herbs or natural medicines, looking for research articles can be one place to start. When I speak to people about herbs, they are often surprised to find that there is a growing base of evidence supporting their use, and importantly, helping us understand how herbs are acting in the body.

How to find research articles?
The place I’ve used nearly every day for as long as I can recall now is PubMed – a free electronic bibliographic database from the US National Library of Medicine (NLM).

Just as you would do a search engine search, for example “holidays + Spain”, you will have a think about your keywords (holidays, Spain) and also combine them up, not using the ‘+’ sign but the word AND (these are called Boolean terms and mean the same thing).

So if you want to go to PubMed and search “Turmeric AND human” please go ahead. What you’ll see is a list of all the research papers and a little graph that shows you how the numbers of papers looking at the herb is greatly increasing year on year. So that is the growing evidence base I was talking about, and what that also means, is it gets more and more complicated to actually find good articles that are helpful to us.

Screengrab from a simple PubMed.gov search.

What are different types of articles?
We also need to consider what type of articles we are looking for. When researchers write articles, they can be of different types, as shown in the diagram.

Types of research diagram
Different types of research you may come across reading about herbs
Some of these types of research approaches are:
  • Review – an overview of all the papers in an area.
  • Original research – they might have done some experiments and found out new things.
  • Clinical trial – this is the term to describe a human study, but it might be a pilot study at a small scale and not using precise methods.
  • Randomised controlled trial – or RCT – this is a human study that does use precise methods; patients are ‘randomly’ allocated to groups, and there is a test (which could be turmeric) and it is compared to a control (or placebo).
  • Systematic review – this is a type of review that is designed to answer a specific question by finding all the RCT in an area, and it follows a number of methodological steps.
  • Meta-review – sometimes there are so many RCT, and researchers have compiled these up into even large numbers of SRs, then we might do a meta-review or overview of reviews, to draw conclusions from all of them.
  • What about evidence hierarchies?
    People often talk of an evidence hierarchy but I don’t like this so much as it suggests that some forms of research are more important than others. All types of research help put the pieces in the jigsaw to understand our health or the world around us. I’m a big fan of what we call ‘qualitative’ research, which helps generate ideas, and understand our thoughts and attitudes. You might do this research through interviewing people which is a great skill and is always very illuminating.

    When I’ve talked about experiments or RCT or SR, we mean ‘quantitative’ research – think of quantifying, and that involves gathering numbers.

    New words and abbreviations
    Qualitative – qual
    Quantitative – quant
    Clinical trial
    Systematic review
    Randomised controlled trial – RCT