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Systematic reviews: Write a protocol

What is a protocol?

The protocol is a published plan that describes the objectives and methods you will follow for your review.

  • A good protocol will ensure that your review will go smoothly.  It should be built on a sound research question, with strict inclusion/exclusion criteria, and firm ideas about data extraction and quality assessment.
  • During the drafting of the protocol, you will be developing your research question and testing your search strategy in one database, including choosing the keywords to use and which studies to include or exclude.  The frameworks described in Formulate your question, including PICO, may help you develop your research question and search strategy.
  • It is important that you confirm that your review has not been done before, by checking the registers of completed or in-progress reviews.
  • It is recommended that you register your own finalised protocol, so that other researchers are made aware of your review and you are able to cite it.

Looking for protocols

Before you write your protocol and to ensure the uniqueness of your review, you should search the registers of completed and ongoing studies. Below, are some suggested starting-points for your searches.

Writing a protocol

When designing your protocol, refer to the reporting guidance for your type of review, to ensure that you do not forgot to include something in the initial stages that you are expected to report at the end. For example, the PRISMA website has a minimum set of 27 items that should be reported, including the methods and results.

PRISMA stands for Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses. PRISMA is designed for reviews that evaluate randomized trials, although it can be used to report systematic reviews of other types of research, particularly evaluations of interventions.

Registering your protocol

It is recommended that you add your final protocol to a register to raise awareness among researchers. PROSPERO is just one register you might want to consider:

Inclusion/exclusion criteria

The Library of the University of Melbourne provides a helpful infographic about common inclusion or exclusion criteria.

University of Melbourne's infographic: Common Inclusion/Exclusion Criteria

More advice about writing a protocol

Module 2 in Cochrane Interactive Learning provides advice about the key components and structure of a protocol.  The Library is subscribing to Cochrane Interactive Learning.  

Log in to Module 2: Cochrane Interactive Learning