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Systematic Reviews: Step 2: Develop a Protocol

Created by Health Science Librarians

About Step 2: Develop a Protocol

It takes an average of 40 hours for a systematic review team to develop a protocol

In Step 2, you will write your systematic review protocol. This is a detailed work plan for your systematic review. You will:

  1. Define the criteria you will use to screen literature.
  2. Decide where and how you will search for literature.
  3. Choose quality assessment tools to evaluate the literature.
  4. Decide how you will extract data from the articles you include.
  5. Upload your protocol to a website or registry to make it available to the public.

This page has checklists and templates to help you write your protocol. Librarians can help you refine your protocol based on systematic review best-practices.

Click an item below to see how it applies to Step 2: Develop a Protocol.

For PRISMA, there are specific items you will want to report in your protocol.  For this step, review the PRISMA-P standards and the explanation document.

Covidence is a tool that can be used for screening, quality assessment, and data extraction. Decisions made in this stage will inform the logistics and completion of future review steps. Specify the use of Covidence in the protocol, if applicable, and note team member roles for these tasks.

When writing your protocol, a librarian can help you:

  • Develop and refine your research plan according to systematic review best practices 
  • Advise on your literature searching methods documentation 
  • Determine if/where to publish or share your completed protocol


Do I need to write a protocol?

It is best practice to develop a protocol and make it publicly available before starting a systematic review. Protocols describe the rationale, hypothesis, and planned methods of the project before the review has begun and allow readers of completed reviews to identify deviations from planned methods and determine whether the bias impacts the interpretation of review results and conclusions. You can upload a review protocol to a website or registry and make it accessible so researchers can know what reviews are planned or in process. While not an inclusive list, several options of places to upload or deposit your protocol can be found in our Protocol FAQ

Write a protocol

Writing a Review Protocol: Good Practice and Common Errors

                            HSL Protocol Template                     

What to IncludeA screenshot of the HSL protocol template, which asks for specific information about your study to help you draft a protocol

Many  elements of a systematic review will need to be detailed in advance in the protocol. An example of items included in the protocol are:

Unsure of what to include in your systematic review protocol or how to address certain items? PRISMA 2015 has a special extension specifically for best reporting methods of writing a protocol. View a list of help documents below, including an E&E (Elaboration & Explanation) document for examples.


Make your protocol visible

You can upload your protocol to a website or registry and make it accessible to others. While not an inclusive list, several options of places to upload or deposit your protocol can be found below. Alternatively, some journals publish systematic review protocols. Verify publishing requirements of systematic review protocols on the website of the journal in which you intend to submit for publication.

Compare protocol registries to see which tool might meet your needs.