Background: Systematic reviewers may encounter a multiplicity of outcome data in the reports of randomised controlled trials included in the review (for example, multiple measurement instruments measuring the same outcome, multiple time points, and final and change from baseline values). The primary objectives of this study are to investigate in a cohort of systematic reviews of randomised controlled trials of interventions for rheumatoid arthritis, osteoarthritis, depressive disorders and anxiety disorders: (i) how often there is multiplicity of outcome data in trial reports; (ii) the association between selection of trial outcome data included in a meta-analysis and the magnitude and statistical significance of the trial result, and; (iii) the impact of the selection of outcome data on meta-analytic results. Methods/Design: Forty systematic reviews (20 Cochrane, 20 non-Cochrane) of RCTs published from January 2010 to January 2012 and indexed in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews (CDSR) or PubMed will be randomly sampled. The first meta-analysis of a continuous outcome within each review will be included. From each review protocol (where available) and published review we will extract information regarding which types of outcome data were eligible for inclusion in the meta-analysis (for example, measurement instruments, time points, analyses). From the trial reports we will extract all outcome data that are compatible with the meta-analysis outcome as it is defined in the review and with the outcome data eligibility criteria and hierarchies in the review protocol. The association between selection of trial outcome data included in a meta-analysis and the magnitude and statistical significance of the trial result will be investigated. We will also investigate the impact of the selected trial result on the magnitude of the resulting meta-analytic effect estimates. Discussion: The strengths of this empirical study are that our objectives and methods are pre-specified and transparent. The results may inform methods guidance for systematic review conduct and reporting, particularly for dealing with multiplicity of randomised controlled trial outcome data.