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BACKGROUND: The official WHO estimates of preterm birth are an essential global resource for assessing the burden of preterm birth and developing public health programmes and policies. This protocol describes the methods that will be used to identify, critically appraise and analyse all eligible preterm birth data, in order to develop global, regional and national level estimates of levels and trends in preterm birth rates for the period 1990 - 2014. METHODS: We will conduct a systematic review of civil registration and vital statistics (CRVS) data on preterm birth for all WHO Member States, via national Ministries of Health and Statistics Offices. For Member States with absent, limited or lower-quality CRVS data, a systematic review of surveys and/or research studies will be conducted. Modelling will be used to develop country, regional and global rates for 2014, with time trends for Member States where sufficient data are available. Member States will be invited to review the methodology and provide additional eligible data via a country consultation before final estimates are developed and disseminated. DISCUSSION: This research will be used to generate estimates on the burden of preterm birth globally for 1990 to 2014. We invite feedback on the methodology described, and call on the public health community to submit pertinent data for consideration. TRIAL REGISTRATION: Registered at PROSPERO CRD42015027439 CONTACT: firstname.lastname@example.org.