Planning A Systematic Review

The Importance of the Protocol

A systematic review is designed to answer a focused health sciences related question in a systematic, reproducible matter. To achieve this goal, researchers should create a Protocol. 

A protocol is a document designed to guide researchers through the complete systematic review process. Typically these documents serve as a guide for the research team throughout the life of the review.

Below are various sections found in a comprehensive protocol. 

    While a systematic review team should have at least two members, a well-rounded team will include the following members:

    1. Subject matter expert
    2. Systematic Review methodology expert
    3. Evidence search expert
    4. Quantitative methods expert

    The Woodruff Health Sciences Library Systematic Review Team can provide you with SR searching and methodology expertise.

    Selecting the proper databases to search for the evidence is a key decision every Systematic Review team must face.  While health sciences databases such as PubMed (Medline) and Embase are essential to systematic review searching, subject-specific databases can provide you with relevant and timely evidence.

    Subject Specific Databases

    Date range: 1985-present

    • Life sciences
    • Biology
    • Microbiology
    • Biotechnology
    • Environmental studies
    • Biochemistry
    • Biophysics
    • Bioengineering

    Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL) 
    Date range: N/A

    • Controlled Trials

    Date range: 1983-present

    • Nursing
    • Allied health

    Education Resources Information Center (ERIC)
    Date range: N/A

    Joanna Briggs
    Date range: 1998-present

    • Evidence Based Medicine

    Date range: 1597-present

    • Psychology

    Web of Science
    Date range: 1900-present

    • Soci-economics
    • Biomedicine

    Consider region-specific databases when your study question includes a special population.

    Region-specific databases

    African Index Medicus (AIM)
    Date range: N/A

    KCI-Korean Journal Database(WoS)
    Date range: 1980-present

    Latin America
    Date range: 1980-present

    Russian Science Citation Index(WoS)
    Date range: 2005-present

    ScieELO Citation Index (WoS)
    Latin America, Portugal, South Africa, Spain 
    Date range: N/A

    *WoS = Web of Science

    Grey literature is any documentation that might be relevant for your systematic review that typically isn't found in a database. Government documents, reports, white papers, news articles, dissertations are all types of grey literature.

    Including grey literature in your systematic review will diminish publication bias.

    Grey Literature Sources

    CDC Stacks
    Date range: N/A

    Collection of CDC publications including guidelines and recommendations and MMWR reports.
    Date range: 2000-present is a database of privately and publicly funded clinical studies conducted around the world.

    Date range: N/A

    International, national, and local news sources and news wires.

    Institutional Repository for Information Sharing (IRIS)
    Date range: 1948-present

    The digital library of the World Health Organization (WHO)s published material and technical information. Its content is freely accessible and searchable in the six official languages (Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian & Spanish).

    National Technical Reports Literature (NTRL)
    Date range: 1964-present

    Access to a large collection of historical and current authenticated government technical reports in a wide range of subject areas, including health care, environmental pollution, medicine, biology, and engineering.

    Nexis Uni
    Date range: 1789-present

    Access to news, business, medical, educational and legal sources. The sources include international, national, and regional newspapers; magazines; trade journals; newsletters; wire service reports; and transcripts of television and radio news programs.

    ProQuest Dissertations & Theses
    Date range: 1861-present

    The official digital dissertations archive for the Library of Congress.

    WHO International Clinical Trials Registry Platform (ICTRP)
    Date range: N/A

    The main aim of the WHO ICTRP is to facilitate the prospective registration of the WHO Trial Registration Data Set on all clinical trials, and the public accessibility of that information.


    Consider these limits when writing your protocol.

    • Time Period
      • (Ex. Last 5 years, 2000-2010)
    • Study Populations
      • Consider age ranges as well as special populations.
    • Humans only
      • Are there any studies that might feature both humans and animals?
    • National/International
    • Language
      • To avoid bias consider what languages your team members can read and review.
    • Study Methodology
      • Are you only interested in randomized controlled trials? Cohort studies?

    A project timeline should be established within your protocol. Below is a table of a typical Systematic Review timeline.

    Cochrane's estimated timeline for completing a systematic review

    Month / Activity

    1-2       Preparation of protocol
    3-8       Searches for published and unpublished studies
    2-3       Pilot test of eligibility criteria
    3-8       Inclusion assessments
    3          Pilot test of 'Risk of bias' assessment
    3-10    Validity assessments
    3          Pilot test of data collection
    3-10    Data collection
    3-10    Data entry
    5-11    Follow up of missing information
    8-1      Analysis
    1-11    Preparation of review report
    12-      Keeping the review up-to-date

    *Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions


    Higgins J.P.T., Green S. (editors). Cochrane Handbook for Systematic Reviews of Interventions Version 5.1.0 [updated March 2011]. The Cochrane Collaboration, 2011. Available from

    Institute of Medicine. 2011. Finding What Works in Health Care: Standards for Systematic Reviews. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

    Systematic Review Planning Worksheet

    Health Sciences Systemic Review

    Ready to plan your systematic review or evidence synthesis project? Use our Systematic Review Planning Worksheet as a guide.