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The missing links: Why NIH doesn’t allow hyperlinks in grant applications

Greg Bissonette
Greg BISSONETTE,
Health Scientist Administrator,
Scientific Review Branch (SRB)
.

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.

Comments

Submitted by Preeti Zanwar on April 14, 2021

Thank you for your clarification on the risks of using hyperlinks in grant applications. Your blog was very informative and something I would have not thought about could potentially come in the way of our application review.

Thank you Preeti for the kind words and for subscribing to our blog! I’m glad this has been of use.

Submitted by Peter Sorger on April 14, 2021

Thanks very much to Greg for explaining this policy. It is absolutely depressing and tells us that grant review has not even entered the 20th century. We simply cannot prosper if we continue to rely on pre-internet ways of doing business. It would be quite straighforward to set up a secure system by which links could be be fully anononymized (think bitly) for inclusion in grants with no danger to reviewers. The problem is a lack of imagination on our part - the reviewers and scientific community- with no criticism intended for Greg and his hardworking colleagues.

Thank you Peter for your comments and recommendation. The NIH is always looking to improve and update our policies and practices, and to do so efficiently, we need to hear directly from the extramural community.

Submitted by John Sedivy on April 14, 2021

I agree that this is a good idea. However, these are some barriers to equitable implementation.

There has been a lot of confusion on this. Some grants offices have provided information that as long as the link is not "live" (i.e. clickable), it's OK to cite www.something. something, because if the reader wants to follow up, they will have to actually look it up. Same as with any other reference.

The problem is that with new versions of commonly used software (including MS Word and Acrobat) the software will recognize and search for the link, and make it live. This is because the defaults are set that way, and it happens automatically in the background. And the software does this without making the link blue, so there is no way to know unless you hover over it.

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