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Engineering: The Literature Review Process

How to do a thorough literature review for a dissertation, thesis, applied project or grant application.

Do You Know What You Are Looking For?

If you can't clearly express what you need, you will not be able to effectively determine which are the best sources to search, what terminology should be used in those sources, and if the results are appropriate and sufficient.    

In this chapter we'll show you a template you can use to easily compose your research question. 

How to Compose a Research Question Using PICO

"PICO" is an acronym you can use to create your research question.  By defining each part of the question, PICO breaks the information quest down to its essential parts.  From these essential parts will come the initial keywords and search statements you'll use for your literature review's search strategy.

The four components of PICO for engineers are described as follows: 

  • P is the product or process being studied or the problem that needs to be solved.  In biomedical engineering, P could also be the population for whom an intervention is being developed.  
  • I is the improvement or intervention you'll be applying to the product, process or population, or, in the case of solving a problem, it could be the suspected issue that caused the problem.
  • C is what you'll compare your intervention, improvement, or issue to, and 
  • O is the outcome, or the measurable results of comparing I and C.

Next, compose a research question using the 4 PICO components.   The components do not have to be in order (P, I, C,O).    The question could look like this ...    For [product] does [improvement] generate [outcome]  when measured against [comparison]? 



Diabetics need to monitor their glucose levels frequently so they may take steps to prevent/treat hyperglycemia (too much glucose in the blood) or hypoglycemia (too little glucose).  Unfortunately, measuring glucose requires puncturing the skin to draw blood; the inconvenience, possibility of infection, pain and cost of materials could be reasons many diabetics are not as diligent in their monitoring as they should be.  A non-invasive method of measuring blood glucose would be desirable.  You are wondering if a technique that measures the absorbency of near-infrared (NIR) light through a diabetic's finger has already been explored and if so, how successful was it? 

PICO components:

  • P = Process = blood glucose monitoring 
  • = Improvement = measuring NIR light absorbency through the finger
  • C = Comparison = pricking finger to collect blood samples
  • O = Outcome = NIR absorbency within 0.5% accuracy of testing actual blood samples. 

PICO question: ​

For monitoring blood glucose levels (P), can measuring by NIR light absorbency (I) come within 0.5% accuracy (O) of the current method of testing actual blood samples (C)?  

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