Information Fluency

Formulating a Well-Defined, Answerable Research Question

The first step to literature searching involves taking a clinical topic or problem and formulating it into a well-defined, answerable question. The development of a clear and focused question will help to streamline the searching process to locate the literature needed to begin answering the question and addressing the clinical problem. A well-defined, answerable question: 

  • defines the focus of your literature search
  • identifies the appropriate study design and methods
  • makes searching for evidence simpler and more effective
  • helps you identify relevant results and separate relevant results from irrelevant ones

What type of question are you asking?

  • Therapy: effectiveness/risk of a certain treatment

  • Diagnosis: accuracy/usefulness of a diagnostic test/tool; application to a specific patient 

  • Prognosis: probable outcome, progression, or survivability of a disease or condition; likelihood of occurrence

  • Etiology/Harm: cause or risk factors for a disease or condition; questions about the harmful effect of an intervention or exposure on a patient

Tips to formulating a good question:

  • The question is directly relevant to the most important health issue for the patient;
  • The question is focused and when answered, will help the patient the most;
  • The question is phrased to facilitate a targeted literature search for precise answers

Adopted from CEBM: what makes a good clinical question and Center for Evidence Based Medicine: Asking focused questions 


What is the effectiveness of Prozac vs Zoloft in treating adolescents with depression?

What is PICO?

In EBM, PICO is used to help frame a focused and answerable question from a general topic. PICO is a mnemonic used to describe the four elements of a sound clinical foreground question.

PICO  stands for:

  • P - Population/Patient/Problem
  • I - Intervention  
  • C - Comparison or Control
  • O - Outcome

Alternative formats of PICO include PICOT and PICOTT:

  • T - Time
  • T - Type of question
  • T - Type of study

The resources below provide PICO search builders where you can plug your terms. 


P: adolescents with depression

I: Prozac

C: Zoloft

O: n/a