Belgian researchers or healthcare professionals who would like to write a (Cochrane) systematic review can get support from Cochrane Belgium. You can find the different steps in this process below.
Step 1: Before you start
Before you start to develop your systematic review, we recommend you to register for our Systematic Review course. Furthermore, we urge you to have a look at the Cochrane Handbook or Cochrane’s online training materials. Preparing yourself thoroughly takes some time, but it will pay off later in the review process.
Upon selecting a topic for your Cochrane systematic review, it is indispensable to check the Cochrane Library to see if this topic has not been covered yet by an already registered protocol or review. If this is not the case, you can go ahead and submit your title to the appropriate Cochrane Review Group.
Step 2: Title registration
Draft your title. Clearly state the question your review will answer. Often a title contains a description of the patient/target population or health problem, the interventions being compared and the outcomes of interest. You submit the title to the appropriate Cochrane Review Group (CRG) covering this discipline. CRGs collaborate within Review Group Networks. This overview of the Networks and their CRGs provides links to the individual CRGs’ websites as well. The website of the CRG provides the title registration procedure to follow. These procedures can differ slightly between CRGs.
At this stage, you also have to assemble your review team. Each step in a Cochrane review has to be performed by two reviewers independently, to avoid errors as much as possible. Take into account that a review team must have experience in the topic area of the review, but also needs (access to) methodological expertise, including statistical expertise. Cochrane Review Groups often require involvement of at least one author with previous experience in writing a Cochrane review.
Do not hesitate to contact Cochrane Belgium if you encounter any issues when putting together your review team.
The CRG’s coordinator will assess your review proposal based on the review topic availability, the relevance to the scope of the CRG and the priority of the topic. If another author team also expresses interest in your review topic, a compromise is sought. Often this results in the two teams joining forces and sharing the review authorship. If the topic is available and of high priority, you will most likely receive a positive answer and you can start developing the protocol. If the topic does not match the scope of the Review Group, you will be referred to a more appropriate Cochrane Review Group.
Step 3: Writing the protocol
Developing and writing the protocol is a crucial step, as the protocol will be peer-reviewed and the final version will be published in the Cochrane Library. Any deviations from this protocol during the review process will also have to be justified in the final review. Developing the protocol therefore requires reflection and extensive discussion with the entire review team. The protocol must contain:
- inclusion and exclusion criteria for study selection;
- planned search strategy (databases and search terms to be used);
- methods for the analysis (data collection, statistical model, subgroup analysis, etc.).
The Cochrane Handbook provides extensive information for each of these parts. We recommend consulting it at each stage when developing the protocol. The fixed format of a Cochrane review protocol is integrated into the software package RevMan, freely available for download, and RevMan Web. You must use one of those to submit your protocol. Review Groups differ slightly in their rules regarding protocol requirements. Usually you can find documents setting out these requirements on the Review Group’s website.
Once your review protocol is finalized, you submit it to the Cochrane Review Group where it will go through a peer review process. After the potential concerns stemming from the preview are addressed and necessary amendments to the protocol are made by the review team, the protocol will be accepted and published in the Cochrane Library.
Step 4: Writing the review
Once the protocol has been accepted and published in the Cochrane Library, you can conduct the review according to the protocol. Again, you should consult the Cochrane Handbook for detailed instructions. Moreover, there are clear and detailed guidelines for performing and reporting Cochrane Systematic Reviews: MECIR standards (Methodological Expectations of Cochrane Intervention Reviews). The previously mentioned RevMan or RevMan Web provides the required structure. You must use it once more to submit the review to the Cochrane Review Group for peer review. The review will go through one or more peer review cycles before the final review is accepted and published in the Cochrane Library.
Step 5: Updating the review
Committing to a Cochrane review also implies you will regularly have to update the review. Whether and when a review must be updated depends on the availability of new data or methods that may affect the results of the review.
If you encounter issues in any phase of the review, please do not hesitate to contact Cochrane Belgium.