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Research Guides

Comprehensive Searching in the Social Sciences

We'll take you through the process of creating a comprehensive search of the scholarly literature step by step. These strategies can help you design a search for a scoping or systematic review.visualization of research process

If your topic is related to health or clinical practice, you may also want to check out the comprehensive searching guide for health sciences.

What is a research question?

Each search should begin with a research question: a question you hope to answer through an examination of articles, books, and other relevant sources.

The best research questions are ones based on issues that interest you and that are appropriate to the discipline you’re studying. The easiest research question to operationalize in your search is one that has the following characteristics:

  • Clarity: easily understood
  • Focus: narrow enough that it can generate specific, rather than general, answers
  • Conciseness: expressed in the fewest possible words
  • Complexity: cannot be answered with a simple yes or no – requires synthesis and analysis of evidence to answer

Why start with a research question?

Some projects begin with broad topics rather than narrow research questions. However, drafting a research question to guide your literature search has at least two benefits. A narrow research question:

  1. Will generate fewer irrelevant search results.
  2. Can be used to evaluate the sources you find. When looking at each source you can ask, “How does this source help me answer my research question?”

What is a research question framework?

Many researchers use an established model or “framework” of research question development to generate and organize the components of their research question. Frameworks are often based around an acronym. Each letter in the acronym represents a prompt to help you consider a specific element of your research question in more detail.

Is the use of an established research question framework necessary?

A research question can be developed without the use of a framework. Frameworks are simply some of the many tools available to support your work. If you are interested in applying a research question framework for your social science research project, consider one of the following.

Example research question frameworks


  • Who is involved?
  • What is the focus or objective of the research?
  • When was the relevant research generated or reported?
  • How was the study undertaken? What methodologies were employed?  


  • People: Who is the research question focused on?
  • Concept: What idea is the research question focused on?
  • Context: What is the location or culture the research question is focused on?


  • People/Phenomenon: Who is involved? What is of interest?  
  • Outcome: What effect or consequence is of interest?


  • People: Who is involved?
  • Situation: What circumstance, experience, or issue are you focused on?


  • Setting: Where is the study population located?
  • Perspective: Who is the study population of interest?
  • Intervention: What is the variable impacting the study population?
  • Comparison: Is there a segment of this population not impacted by the variable?
  • Evaluation: What is the impact of the variable on the population?

What are the benefits of using a research question framework?

A research question framework can help you:

  • Translate your broad topic into a focused research question
  • Identify the main concepts within your research question
  • Generate key terms for each main concept to use in your search