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Systematic Reviews: SR protocol

A guide to assist staff and students undertaking systematic reviews


Why is it important to have a plan?

A major cause of bias in a systematic review is answering a different question to that being originally asked. This is why it is important to develop a review plan or protocol.

The benefits of having a protocol before the beginning of a review:

  • relate to the validity and merit of a research process that reduces risk of bias
  • promotes a systematic rather than ad hoc approach to the review process
  • facilitates communication with others and promotes consistency between review team members
  • support the reliability and usefulness of reviews to health professionals

The protocol should include:

  • Review question/objective
  • Inclusion/exclusion criteria (scope including types of studies, participants, interventions)
  • Search strategy
  • Methodology
  • Declaration of interests

How to make your protocol visible

Registering your protocol in a publicly accessible way will avoid other people duplicating your review. Similarly, it is always a good idea to check these sources ahead of starting out just in case someone else has lodged a review protocol on the same topic.

A good place to register a health review is PROSPERO. Once you register your review will:

  • be available open access through the PROSPERO database.
  • have a unique registration number. This number can be cited in publications and reports to provide the link between your planned and completed review. This is recommended by PRISMA (2009) and many publishers.
  • Guidance notes for registering a systematic review protocol with PROSPERO  Before registering your review check to see if your protocol is eligible for registration.

You can publish your protocol:

Protocols for Cochrane and Joanna Briggs Institute reviews are published on their websites:

Many other journals will allow you to publish your protocol. You should also look for relevant journals within your discipline area.