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Systematic Reviews

A guide for researchers beginning a medical systematic review or meta-analysis.

Team Members Involved

All team members should be involved in creating the Protocol.  The team lead should be responsible for registering the protocol and serving as the contact author.

What is a Protocol?

A systematic review protocol describes in advance the rationale, hypothesis, and methods you plan to use in your review. It serves many functions:

  • As a road map to the team when conducting the review
  • Promoting transparency of methods
  • As a way of 'staking ones claim' to a topic
  • Helps ensure that the review is conducted systematically and in a manner than removes bias

Creating & Registering your Protocol

The largest and most-used protocol registry for systematic reviews is PROSPERO.  PROSPERO includes details of any ongoing systematic review that has a health related outcome in the broadest sense.  You can both register your own planned systematic review and search other protocols on their site.  Creating an account on the site is required to register your protocol, but not to search other protocols.

There are 22 required (and 18 optional) fields in a PROSPERO registration including

  • Title & Research Question
  • Start and anticipated completion dates
  • Contact Information
  • Anticipated search terms and databases
  • PICO details and inclusion/exclusion criteria
  • Risk Assessment and Analysis/Synthesis plan

The PROSPERO record should be updated periodically as the review proceeds to indicate progress.

Why should you register your Protocol?

Protocol registries were developed in response to an increasing number of systematic reviews being written, increasing the likelihood of duplication of reviews. Additionally, systematic reviews may be selective in reporting their outcomes when their hypothesis was not confirmed, leading to an absence of negative results.

Registering your protocol will:

  • Increase transparency
  • Possibly reduce the risk of duplicate reviews
  • Potentially increase visibility to potential researchers or editors
  • Establish credibility and accountability

Registering your protocol will not:

  • Allow you to be 'scooped' by another group.  (Registering your protocol will show priority and distinguish your review)
  • Be time consuming.  The information reported in a protocol is an important part of your planning for a systematic review anyway.