The missing links: Why NIH doesn’t allow hyperlinks in grant applications
Hyperlinks and URLs (or Uniform Resource Locators – who knew?) are a ubiquitous part of working or playing online. From shopping to social media and even NIH Guide Notices, our modern world is one big hyperlinked, interconnected information ecosystem.
So, what’s up with NIH being so strict about hyperlinks in grant applications? It all boils down to some of the core values of NIH’s Peer Review system (PDF, 773K).
Fairness, confidentiality, and integrity
We strive to ensure that review criteria are applied fairly to each grant application so that no applicant receives an undue advantage. This means we pay attention to seemingly mundane but important distinctions such as page limits, permitted font sizes, or attempts to circumvent section space limitations. Allowing extra material in the application, accessible via hyperlinks, would unfairly benefit some applicants over others. An applicant would (rightfully!) be upset to learn that competing applications under review provided unauthorized additional material that reviewers accessed through hyperlinks.
The integrity of NIH’s review system must always be protected to maintain public trust. However, a simple click on a link in a grant application can be tracked to the IP (Internet Protocol) address of the reviewer, unmasking their confidential identity. Even if this does not reveal the reviewer’s exact identity, one could make an educated guess as to whom the application is assigned based on the institution from which the IP address originated. This could compromise the integrity of the NIH peer review system and NIH takes all breaches of review integrity seriously.
Do’s, don’ts, and a few exceptions
The NIH Office of Extramural Research assembled a list of the Do’s and Don’ts of Hyperlinks, stressing the aforementioned points. But it is also important to understand there are a few exceptions to the “no hyperlinks” rule:
- If the FOA explicitly permits hyperlinks, then you may include them. (Be sure to always read the entire text of the FOA.)
- NIH permits hyperlinks to your “MyNCBI” profile in your NIH biosketch and in the publication lists as commented on in the Hyperlinks and URLs section of the Format Attachments page.
- Further, if hyperlinks are permitted, in the interest of transparency, the full URL must be presented and appear in blue, as in https://www.nih.gov.
- Of note, there are no special permissions for links to NIH or government websites. In other words, you don’t get a free pass by linking to us. There is also no explicit allowance for links in application sections, such as “Facilities and Other Resources” that do not have page limits.
So I hope this helps explain why, for the above reasons and those specified by NIH, that unless the FOA explicitly states otherwise, the inclusion of even a single inappropriate hyperlink can represent a major violation of the rules governing NIH peer review and can lead to an application being withdrawn from consideration.
So, before you copy that link to your institution’s facilities, lab website, or that new cool data in a big, online database into your next application, please ask yourself whether it’s important enough to risk your application being withdrawn from review. Double check the FOAs and NIH guidance to make sure if the hyperlink you have in mind is allowed. If not, please respect the boundaries set by NIH grant rules and general principles, which help us ensure that all applications receive equitable, fair review. If you have questions, contact the NIA SRB or leave a comment below.