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Evidence Synthesis in the Social Sciences

Models for Forming Research Questions

Forming a research question takes time and may take several iterations. There are many frameworks that you can use to transpose your initial research interest or knowledge gap into a specific research question. For a comprehensive, but brief overview of many frameworks, see the below attached rapid review that was part of a British Medical Journal article about question frameworks, and the University of Maryland Library Guide on research question frameworks.  

It is recommended that your team explore question frameworks to find the ones that work for you. The following examples demonstrate some of the most prevalent frameworks for evidence synthesis in the social sciences. 


PICO is likely the most well-used and widely known framework. PICO Stands for: 

  • P  Population/Problem (who or what?) 
  • I   Intervention/Exposure (what action is being taken) 
  • C  Comparison (compared to what outcomes without intervention) 
  • O  Outcome (what result?) 

Example: Do midsize midwestern cities (population) that build bicycle lanes (intervention) have more bicycle commuters (outcome) when compared to midsize midwestern cities without bike lanes (comparison)? 

PICO in Qualitative Reviews

The standard PICO framework is very helpful in quantitative and health science scenarios, but can also be adjusted slightly to accommodate reviews of qualitative information, as well: 

  • P Population/Problem
  • I  Phenomenon of Interest 
  • Context
  • O Outcome 

Example:  Do trauma-based care practices (phenomenon of interest) in the United States child welfare system (context) improve self-worth (outcome) among teens in foster care (population)? 

Other variations of PICO Include PICOT (T = Time) and PICOS (S=Study Design). For more information on the PICO variations, see this guide from CQ University of Australia


  • S    Setting   (where?) 
  • P    Perspective (who?) 
  • I     Intervention (what action is being taken?) 
  • C   Comparison (compared to what other outcomes?) 
  • E   Evaluation (what would determine the success of the intervention?) 

Example: What is the effect of Quit Kits to support smoking cessation (intervention) on number of successful attempts to give up smoking (evaluation) compared to no support ("cold turkey") (comparison)  for teenagers (perspective) in South Carolina (setting)? 



  • E  Expectation (what is looking to be improved or change?) 
  • C  Client (for whom is the change going to benefit?) 
  • L  Location (where?) 
  • I  Impact (Intervention - what is the change? ) 
  • P  Professionals (what professionals are involved?) 
  • S  Service (what kind of service or policy is involved?) 

Example: How have New Jersey (location) policymakers (professionals) supported small restaurants' (client) ability to meet takeout demand (expectation) after new plastic bag ban legislation (intervention + service) went into effect? 


This page was developed with adaptations from UNC Libraries and Cornel Libraries' LibGuides


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