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Systematic Reviews: The SR Process & First Steps

Getting Started with a Systematic Review Protocol

Developing a protocol for your systematic review helps you develop a plan for your review process and can help to reduce bias.  If you begin without clearly defining a research question, you may be more easily influenced by the evidence presented in existing studies. Articulating your plans in a protocol will make your SR process more focused and ultimately more successful.

Systematic Review Standards

Steps in a Systematic Review

  1. Planning the review
    1. Research question development
    2. Determination of study feasibility
    3. Protocol development
    4. Pre-literature search
  2. Literature Search
    1. Literature search methodology development
    2. Management of literature search results and documentation
  3. Selection Screening
    1. Screening of articles
    2. Obtaining full-text articles
  4. Appraisal and Analysis
    1. Appraisal of included studies
    2. Data Extraction
    3. Statistical Analysis
    4. Synthesize and interpret results
  5. Manuscript Preparation
    1. Complete PRISMA checklist
    2. Write and edit manuscript draft
    3. Update literature searches
    4. Supply figures
    5. Write structured abstract
    6. Documentation of reproducible search strategy
  6. Publication and Dissemination
    1. Clearly present your findings, search strategies, selection criteria, etc.
    2. Use of checklist and flow diagram to disseminate your result, for example, PRISMA reporting items, CONSORT statement, etc.
    3. Provide recommendations for practice and policy making if high quality evidence found
    4. Oral presentation, poster presentation at a conference
    5. Manuscript for publication

Guides on how to complete Systematic Reviews

Instructions for Authors

We recommend checking for requirements from the journal(s) you are considering submitting your manuscript while your team is in the process of developing your protocol to ensure that your work fits their requirements from the beginning. It may also be helpful to look at examples of completed SRs from your desired publications, especially if they do not have specific instructions for SRs.

Here are some selected journals with specific instructions for authors for Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses. 

Who can be part of a Systematic Review Team?

According to the National Academies Standards for Systematic Reviews, teams should be multidisciplinary to better break from preconceived opinions and include the members with the following types of expertise.  A single team member can have multiple areas of expertise and the size of the team may vary depending on the complexity of the topic. The number of team members with each type of expertise needs to be carefully balanced so that one group of experts is not overly influential and to reduce the risk of bias.

  • Topic expert
  • Systematic review methodology expert
  • Search expert
  • Statistician
  • Others as appropriate (stakeholders, key users)

According to the Cochrane Handbook Chapter 2: Preparing a Cochrane review the review team should include enough people that each task can be completed independently by at least two people to increase the likelihood that errors are detected.

Suggested Time Frame for Systematic Reviews

Systematic reviews significantly more time and effort to complete than traditional narrative literature reviews.  The Cochrane Collaboration is known for providing high quality systematic reviews and in the they suggest that a reasonable time frame is rarely less than one year. Timeline for a Cochrane review Table. 

An analysis of data from the PROSPERO registry on systematic review protocols marked as completed found that the mean time to complete the SR in weeks was 67.3 weeks with a range reported from 6-186 weeks. The authors also estimate that the time was likely longer since the time reported was from the date the protocol was registered until publication and did not include the time to assemble the team, determine feasibility of the project, and develop the protocol.

Another suggested timeline for Systematic Reviews is available from the University of Syndey Library: click here to view.

 

Common Errors: A resource for Cochrane Editors

COMMON ERRORS is a suite of five learning modules for Cochrane Editors to enhance their editorial skills. The modules are designed to help Editors learn to recognise and address many of the common errors that occur as Cochrane reviews are carried out. 

The resource consists of four learning modules and an exercise module.

Inconsistency and inaccuracy
GRADE and interpretation of findings
Interpretation of statistical results
Summary versions of a review
Check your knowledge (exercise module)

You must register for a **free** Cochrane Account to access this training.