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.

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