Dr. Richard Nakamura is director of the NIH Center for Scientific Review.
Imagine this: you’re a reviewer on an NIH study section, and receive a greeting card from the Principal Investigator (PI) on an application you are reviewing. A note written inside the card asks that you look favorably upon the application, and in return, the PI would put in a good word with his friend serving on your promotion committee. Do you accept the offer, or just ignore it? Or, do you report it?
Or this: a reviewer on an NIH study section finds that one of his assigned applications contains an extensive statistical analysis that he does not quite understand. So he emails the application to his collaborator at another university and asks her to explain it to him.
Or what about an investigator who submits an appeal of the outcome of review, citing a particular reviewer as having told him that another reviewer on the study section gave a critical review and unfavorable score to the application out of retaliation for an unfavorable manuscript review?
Or maybe several days after the initial peer review of your application, you receive a phone call from a colleague you haven’t spoken to in quite a while. The colleague is excited about a new technique you developed and wishes to collaborate. You realize the only place you’ve disclosed this new technique is in your recently reviewed NIH grant application. What do you do?
Scenarios like these are thankfully few and far between. Given the size of NIH’s peer review operations, the rarity of such scenarios is a testament to all you do in supporting the integrity of peer review, and the public trust in science. Nevertheless, reminders are helpful, and it’s important to be prepared and understand your role in upholding the integrity of NIH peer review, just in case you are ever put in a situation like the ones described here.
While professional interactions between applicants and reviewers can continue while an application is undergoing peer review, discussions or exchanges that involve the review of that application are not allowed. As an applicant, you should not contact reviewers on the study section evaluating your application to request or provide information about your application or its review, no matter how “trivial” the piece of information may seem. As a reviewer, you should not disclose contents of applications, critiques, or scores. Reviewers should also never reveal review meeting discussions or associate a specific reviewer with an individual review.
Why are these responsibilities important? Because supporting the public trust in science takes the support of the entire research community. Attempts to influence the outcome of the peer review process through inappropriate or unethical means result in needless expenditure of government funds and resources, and erode public trust in science. In addition, NIH may defer an application for peer review or withdraw the application if it determines that a fair review is not feasible because of action(s) compromising the peer review process. Depending on the specific circumstances, the NIH may take additional steps to ensure the integrity of the peer review process, including but not limited to: notifying or requesting information from the institution of the applicant or reviewer, pursuing a referral for government-wide suspension or debarment, or notifying the NIH Office of Management Assessment.
Your responsibility doesn’t end there. All participants in the application and review process, including investigators named on an NIH grant application, officials at institutions applying for NIH support, and reviewers need to report potential breaches of peer review integrity. Immediately report any peer-review integrity concerns to your Scientific Review Officer. For peer review activities within the Center for Scientific Review, you can also send an email message to email@example.com. If you need to report an incident to someone outside of CSR, you may email the NIH Review Policy Officer. We also provide additional resources on our Integrity and Confidentiality in NIH Peer Review page, and encourage you to share this resource, and this blog post, with your peers, colleagues, and trainees.