Systematic Review Manuscript Submission Requirements

The publication of systematic reviews has been on the rise over the last decade, a trend which has greatly supported evidence based practice. As with most things, however, too much of a good thing likely has a downside. In recent years, multiple authors have brought attention to the fact that the “production of systematic reviews and meta‐analyses has reached epidemic proportions” and that their publication may be in need of some “realignment” – see, for example, this article by John Ioannidis:

Ioannidis JP. The Mass Production of Redundant, Misleading, and Conflicted Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses. Milbank Q. 2016 Sep;94(3):485-514. doi: 10.1111/1468-0009.12210. PMID: 27620683; PMCID: PMC5020151

One consequence of all of this has been that many journal publishers are making their manuscript submission requirements and minimum standards for consideration of systematic reviews and meta-analyses a bit more stringent. Below are some examples of requirements authors may come across in a journal’s authors’ instructions for manuscript submission.

It’s now pretty common for journals to not only require the inclusion of a PRISMA Flow diagram, but also the submission of a completed PRISMA checklist.

  • For example, from JAMA Oncology’s instructions for authors:

    “A PRISMA-style flow diagram showing this information should also be included as an online-only supplement. In addition, a completed PRISMA checklist should be submitted for the items completed that apply to systematic reviews (the checklist items that apply to meta-analyses do not need to be completed for systematic reviews without meta-analysis). The checklist will be used during review but will not be published.”

Item no. 5 on the PRISMA checklist asks for information about the existence of a protocol and its registration. Some journals, particularly ones based in Europe, have now actually made prospective registration of the systematic review on PROSPERO, the international prospective register of systematic reviews, or a similar database, compulsory for acceptance and publication (whereas it generally used to be suggested but optional for most journals).

Even more strict, there are publishers that have started being explicit about the minimum number of papers that should be included in the submitted synthesis in order for them to give it their attention and consideration.

  • From the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery‘s instructions for authors:

    “Systematic Reviews & Meta-Analyses: Systematic reviews or meta-analyses that include ≤10 papers will be rejected without review. Manuscripts that review more than 10 papers but have uncertain conclusions (e.g., fatal heterogeneity of data, conclusions state that data are limited and better studies need to be done) will likely be rejected.”

The take-away: Knowing these journal-specific requirements in advance is useful for planning the systematic review or meta-analysis project. Researchers should consider target journal candidates and review their instructions for authors early on in the process.

For more information, be sure to check out the MSK Library’s Systematic Review Service LibGuide or Ask Us.