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Please avoid these reviewers' pet peeves!

Dr. Birgit Neuhuber
Birgit NEUHUBER, Ph.D.,
Deputy Chief, SRB,DEA,
Scientific Review Branch (SRB)

In my career I’ve been on both sides of the grant review process. As an assistant professor at Drexel University, focusing on understanding the cellular environment of the injured spinal cord and exploring therapeutic strategies for spinal cord injuries, I waited impatiently for the outcome of application reviews, worried about the score and was anxious to get feedback.

In my current role as the new Deputy Chief of Review at NIA, my colleagues at the NIA Scientific Review Branch and I see some outstanding grant applications but also many more that contain preventable mistakes. So, I wanted to introduce myself to our blog readers and offer some pointers on common but entirely avoidable errors that often drive reviewers crazy.

Read the FOA!

One mantra has rung true since we were children. Whether you’re applying for a job, installing a new tech toy or assembling semi-disposable Swedish furniture, you must do your homework, read the manual, and follow instructions. When critical sections or attachments are missing, it is glaringly obvious that an applicant did not take the time to read the full funding opportunity announcement (FOA) in detail. Always begin your application process by giving the FOA an attentive read, particularly Section IV, Application Guidelines.

Lost in the weeds

Details are important, but so is organization. You may have a fantastic idea and a potentially highly impactful proposal, but this may not be enough! You also must get your key messages across and present information clearly and concisely so that reviewers can quickly find and easily understand and evaluate it. Again, it’s vital to read through the entire FOA—in addition to reading the Application Guidelines, you’ll also want to carefully read Section V, Review Criteria, to understand how your application will be evaluated and then present your application accordingly.

Living in the past

Another trap is dwelling on your past bona fides at the expense of providing sufficient detail on the proposed research plan. Reviewers need to be comfortable that your team of investigators are competent to conduct the research, but it is the proposed science that wows them and that is where your emphasis needs to be. So, make sure you provide sufficient detail in the experimental approach, show that you are aware of potential challenges or pitfalls and provide alternative solutions.

Not addressing controversies in the field in a fair and balanced manner

This one is easy to dodge when you remember that, like review panel members, applicants must also strive for objectivity amidst heated debates in their fields. An application that does not present both sides risks the appearance of bias or pre-drawn conclusions.

In this situation, it’s a good idea to spell out exactly how your proposed research path will help to provide clarification for the field. It may be that weaknesses in the rigor of prior research are (in part) responsible for the differences of opinion in the field. The revised NIH guidance on rigor and reproducibility specifically encourages applicants to address such weaknesses in their experimental approach.

It’s called a resubmission for a reason

A huge pet peeve for reviewers of resubmission (A1) applications is when previous reviewers’ comments have been ignored or categorically dismissed. Reviewers typically take their job very seriously and provide the best feedback based on their own backgrounds. Before you finalize the Introduction in your A1 application, take a deep breath to switch from your emotional to your thinking brain.

Be gracious and acknowledge the critiques, and then use reviewers’ comments to sharpen and improve your application. It is perfectly fine to disagree with a reviewer’s comment as long as you explain why you believe your point of view is correct. Your chances of breaking through are definitely higher if you show that you have listened to and addressed reviewers’ concerns.

Resources to help

There are many NIA and Trans-NIH resources available to learn about the grant submission process, peer review and funding policies for NIH institutes. And of course, you can (and should) always talk to your program officer about specific FOA goals and your scientific review officer about the review process. Here are a few resources to bookmark:

Grant submission process:

Peer review:

NIA funding policy:

Sample grant applications, summary statements and more:

It’s a two-way street

I hope these suggestions are useful. We welcome your comments below on how we can help better serve our applicants. I am also available to discuss specifics via email. We wish you success and are eager to work with you to help you get there!


Submitted by HONG ZHAO on May 22, 2019

great points, very useful!

Submitted by Bert Singelstone on May 23, 2019

Birgit - I don't buy the part about the FOA. The only people who know less about the FOA than the applicant are those of us who do a LOT of reviewing. I have never read FOAs for any of the grants that I have reviewed, and there are several reasons. (1) Meaningful language in them is subtle, and must be interpreted by a program officer to understand what is really meant, (2) that meaningful language is buried amidst pages upon pages of formal statements, making what is meaningful hard to find, (3) my charge as a reviewer is to identify the best science, not the proposals that best meet the goals of some FOA, (4) many of the proposals I review are submitted under the parent R01, so they don't even attempt to address programmatic goals, and (5) the only thing that matters at the end of the day is the %tile score, and adherence to any goals of an FOA just doesn't impact the score.

Your other points are reasonable, albeit rather obvious.

Here are less obvious but very real pet peeves that I have observed among reviewers at study sections:

(a) failure to cite a reviewers work
(b) implicit or explicit criticism of an idea that forms the foundation of a reviewer's own research theme
(c) proposing experiments that could invalidate a reviewer's most significant prior work
(d) failure to follow formatting or other application guidelines that the reviewer has begrudgingly followed in their own applications (e.g. PMCIDs for every biosketch reference, the unpardonable sin of including one-too-many references on a biosketch)

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