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Systematic Review Overview: 2. Develop a Research Protocol

Introduction to the 8 elements that encompass a systematic review

Step 2. Develop a Research Protocol

A research protocol, research proposal, or review protocol, is a document that states what you plan to do and how you plan to do it.

Starting with a structured, detailed, and written research protocol will help ensure that your methodology is systematic, thereby reducing sources of bias at various stages of your review.

The protocol should include your focused research question and describe the methods you will be using to conduct your review.

For example, the content of a research protocol would include:

  • Background information
  • A breakdown of your question into its components using PICO: patient, intervention, comparison, and outcome (see Step 1: Formulate a Research Question)
  • A search strategy for identifying all relevant studies
  • A list of the databases you plan to search
  • An outline of any other search methods you will be using, such as hand-searching or citation searching
  • Any inclusion and exclusion criteria (what type of studies will you be including?)
  • A description of the methods you will be using to analyze and critically appraise your results

A more detailed list of the elements of a protocol can be found in the Cochrane Handbook. The PRISMA for systematic review protocols (PRISMA-P) is a guideline for elements that should be reported in the protocol to ensure completeness and transparency. In addition, you should register your protocol so that others can see what research you are doing, how you're conducting the research, and to prevent duplication of research.

Keep in mind that after your initial literature search, you may find the need to revise your protocol. Make sure to document any changes that have been made to the protocol in the methods section of the completed review.