A protocol is a document that serves as a work plan for your knowledge synthesis. It is important to write one to help guide you through the process, even if things change along the way. If your methods do change, it is important to document those changes in your final manuscript as well. For example, Cochrane reviews have a section called ‘Differences between protocol and review’ in their completed reviews.
The PRISMA guidelines for the transparent reporting of systematic reviews and meta-analyses define a protocol as a document that "describes the rationale, hypothesis, and planned methods of the review. It should be prepared before a review is started and used as a guide to carry out the review."
For systematic reviews, the PRISMA website provides several sources of guidance on writing a protocol
In general, your protocol should have the following elements:
(Adapted from: Booth, A., Sutton, A. and Papaioannou, D. (2016). Defining the scope. Systematic Approaches to a Successful Literature Review, 2nd edition.)
Once you have written your protocol, consider registering or publishing it. Registration and/or publication improves transparency and can help prevent unnecessary duplication of research.
Top tip: To identify journals that publish review protocols, try searching a database like Scopus for your topic at a broader level, e.g., "mental health", AND add a field search in the article title field, e.g., AND article title: "scoping review" AND protocol. Using Scopus as the example, you can then view the source titles with the most search results based on your search criteria.
More information and guidance on registering in PROSPERO can be found on their website.
Due to a large influx of requests, there may be an extended wait time for librarian support on knowledge syntheses.
Find a librarian in your subject area to help you with your knowledge synthesis project.