About Systematic Reviews

What Is a Systematic Review Protocol?

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 When developing important policies or implementing critical systems, decisions are based on evidence compiled in advance. Since this information comes from scholarly literature, there needs to be a way to evaluate the available resources to ascertain their suitability. In evaluating literature for suitability and quality, systematic reviews are considered the gold standard.

Systematic reviews help to identify, assess, and summarize findings of relevant research, making the evidence accessible and beneficial to decision-makers. As you plan for a systematic review process, understand that it needs to also have a protocol. In this article, you’ll learn more about what a systematic review protocol is and why it’s important.

What Is A Systematic Review?

A systematic review is the use of systematic and explicit procedures in the evaluation of available evidence to answer a specific research question. It attempts to identify and choose relevant research, in order to extract and analyze data from the primary research included in the review. When conducting a systematic search, various tools can be used to check for bias in a study before including it for review. One common tool is the Cochrane risk of bias tool for randomized trials. This helps researchers to avoid highly biased studies, and thus improves the quality of their review results. The use of funnel plots to assess for bias is usually done during the systematic review and not before. 

During the preliminary stages of your research, you should compare existing systematic reviews to get a better understanding of each of their benefits and drawbacks. For instance, you can find resources talking about a randomized controlled trial vs systematic review, a rapid review vs systematic review, and an integrative review vs systematic review, among many others. It is also recommended that after the conclusion of your systematic review, you should compare your review findings to those of other reviews on the same topic.
One thing that makes systematic reviews stand out, is that they require pre-specified protocols.

What Is A Systematic Review Protocol?

A systematic review protocol is a document prepared by a reviewer describing the logic, hypothesis, and procedures used to conduct the review. This document is prepared before a review is started because it is a guide used throughout the review process. The systematic review protocol also needs to be registered beforehand.

Systematic Review Protocol Criteria

Most registries will only consider a systematic review protocol if it is submitted for publication before you start extracting data for a study. When submitting a protocol, make sure it has a detailed description of the hypothesis, procedure, and rationale of the review. Some registries will require that the registration be included as the last line of the abstract under a subtitle labeled Registration. If a registration number hasn’t been received by the time of the registration, it is labeled as submitted along with the date of submission.

Before a protocol is published, it will undergo an editorial review, especially if it has already been reviewed during the funding process. In this case, proof of funding must be provided along with a statement to show it has already undergone a peer review.

Preparation of the Manuscript

Although different registries have different requirements, there are several key elements that each systematic review protocol should have. Here are the main sections that should be included in a manuscript:

  • Title Page: It should define the research design and include the full names and addresses for every author. If you want to list a collaboration group, use the group’s name as the author.
  • Abstract: An abstract should be brief and not exceed 350 words. Also, use fewer abbreviations and avoid citing references in an abstract. A good abstract should include a background, method, discussion, and systematic review registration.
  • Keywords: These are usually three to ten technical terms that represent the main concepts in the manuscript.
  • Background: This explains the context of the study, a summary of the current literature, its objectives, and the contributions the study provides to the industry.
  • Methods: This section includes the objective, design, and setting of the study, as well as a description of the participants and materials, and a brief description of all processes, assessments, and interventions.
  • Discussion: This covers operational or practical problems encountered during the research.
  • Abbreviations: This section includes all abbreviations used in the manuscript, along with their definitions.
  • Declarations: This part of the manuscript has several sections, including the ethics endorsements and consents to take part in the study, approval for publication, availability of information and materials, any opposing interests, funding details, authors’ information, and contributions, and salutations.

Lastly, a systematic review protocol outlines the systematic review processes, which will be used to carry out the review, in a clear manner for the reviewers and readers. The publication of a protocol enables for reproducibility of the systematic review process. It also enables the critiquing of the processes used and thus leads to recommendations, provided by other peer-authors. A systematic review protocol should be registered before a review is started so that it can serve as a guide for whoever is conducting the review.

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