Module 2: Formulating a Research Question and Searching for Sources

Identify Search Terms (Keywords)

Identifying , (also known as search terms) is important for effective literature searching. ​Your search terms are terms that will appear somewhere within the resource (e.g. title, abstract, or author keywords).

You can identify search terms from your research question by highlighting, underlining or circling the main ideas that must appear in the article. Your search concepts are the most important words in your research question.


What are the keywords you identify within this research question?

“What is the relationship between flexible work schedules and staff retention?”

Keywords are easier to identify once the research question has been formulated using one of the stated frameworks (e.g. PICO or PS) listed in Table 2.2 of Formulating a Research Question.

Below is an example of how to use the PICO(T) framework to identify search concepts for a specific research question.


Say you have the following research question: How effective is cognitive behavioural therapy in improving mild-to-moderate depression in adolescents? Let’s break down the formula components by concept.

Formula component Concept
Patient, Population or Problem (P) Adolescents with mild-to-moderate depression
Intervention (I) Cognitive behavioural therapy
Comparison, Control Intervention (C) There is no concept here
Outcome (O)

Symptom reduction

Be aware that not all questions will include each of the framework’s components. For example, the above question does not have a comparison, so there is no Comparison/Control Intervention (C) concept. Also, many experts advise that when conducting a systematic review, you should be careful about specifying a search term for “outcome.” It can result in considerably lower results and produce bias in your study.[1]

Learning Activity

Identify Search Concepts 

Drag and drop the correct search terms using PICO (Patient/Population/Problem, Intervention, Comparison/Control, Outcome) for the following research question:

  1. [citation Frandsen, T. F., Nielsen, M. F. B., Lindhardt, C. L., & Eriksen, M. B. (2020). Using the full PICO model as a search tool for systematic reviews resulted in lower recall for some PICO elements. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 127, 69-75.]


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Advanced Research Skills: Conducting Literature and Systematic Reviews Copyright © 2021 by Kelly Dermody; Cecile Farnum; Daniel Jakubek; Jo-Anne Petropoulos; Jane Schmidt; and Reece Steinberg is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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