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Systematic Review: SR standards/methods

Copy of published guide 'systematic review' (Paula Todd version) for Editing taken in July 2021

Refer to relevant standards and guidelines

If you conduct a systematic review for an organisation which commissions or sponsors reviews, such as Cochrane, you will need to ensure that you adhere to their guidelines and standards. Specific journals may also have particular requirements you need to follow.

Organisations which have developed standards for systematic reviews include:

If you are doing a systematic review for publication, it is also worthwhile looking at SRs in the journals that you are considering submitting to. Different publications may have different standards as to the number of reviewers, the choice of databases searched, the documentation of methods, the registration of a protocol, or other factors.

Systematic review protocols

A protocol outlines the plan or set of steps to be followed. A review protocol should describe the rationale for the review, the methods that will be used to locate, select and critically appraise studies, and to analyse and synthesise data.

The registration of a protocol is designed to provide transparency and a means of ascertaining that the screening, selection and reporting in a completed review are based on the pre-defined criteria and methods specified at the outset, rather than influenced by study findings. PRISMA-P is a useful template for developing a systematic review protocol.

Making protocols publicly available can also reduce duplication of effort. For systematic reviews, this is usually done in a registry (such as Prospero) or publishing it in a dedicated journal (such as Systematic Reviews) during the planning stages of the review.
For other types of reviews, you may consider uploading a protocol to Bridges (the Monash University Repository) or OSF Registries to make it publicly available.
Pieper and Rombey (2022) have identified further options for prospectively registering protocols. Or contact your library team to see if there are recommended options for your discipline or review type.

Methods of documentation

Systematic reviews should be transparent and replicable, requiring you to document the steps as you progress. There are no specific guidelines for how to do this. Options include utilising Excel or Word, creating personal database accounts for saving searches, or other tools or programs. We go into more detail in the Save and manage search results section of this guide.

Information that you will need to document includes:

  • the databases and resources used
  • the date each search was conducted
  • search strategies for each resource
  • the number of results for each

Data collected for a SR should be accurate, complete, and in a form that allows for future updates and data sharing. It’s worth speaking to the data management experts now to make sure you have robust processes in place.