The Do’s & Don’ts of Hyperlinks in Grant Applications

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The do’s and don’ts of hyperlinks in grant applications are simple:

  • Do include hyperlinks when explicitly requested in application guide, funding opportunity, or NIH Guide notice instructions
  • Do use hyperlinks in relevant citations and publications included in biosketches and publication list attachments
  • Don’t use hyperlinks anywhere else in your application

It would be hard to read more than a couple paragraphs on the internet these days without encountering a hyperlink to a definition or additional clarifying information. Hyperlinks are everywhere. So, why does NIH limit the use of hyperlinks in grant applications?

  • Fairness. Key sections of NIH grant applications – Specific Aims, Research Strategies, and Training Program Plans, to name a few – are page limited. Page limits promote fairness by ensuring all applicants have an equal opportunity to present their proposed project. Linking out to additional supporting information negates our page limits.
  • Reviewer Anonymity. We instruct reviewers to rely on the information contained in the grant application and caution them not to follow unrequested links to websites. Website access, especially access to sites controlled by the institution or PI, can be tracked and can compromise reviewer anonymity.
  • Security. Just like clicking on links in phishing emails, following links in grant applications can expose a reader to viruses, malware, or other security threats that can compromise our ability to protect application information.  

At the end of the day, risk avoidance may be the most convincing reason to avoid unrequested hyperlinks. NIH may withdraw your application from consideration if you include them. Don’t risk it. Write a compelling, self-contained grant application and let it speak for itself.

13 Comments

  1. This is good that your office send out these kind of information. Research Administrators get to enhance more of their knowledge to research portfolio.

    Thank you so much,
    School Research Administrator
    Office of Research Excellence
    Milken Institute School of Public Health
    The George Washington University
    Washington, DC

  2. Hyperlinks, are also used to cite a website when there is no other way to cite the source information. What should people do to cite the source, such as a NIH, foundation, or brain bank webpage, in the grant when only a hyperlink is available?

      1. The instruction ““Do use hyperlinks in relevant citations and publications included in biosketches and publication list attachments” does not make clear whether “publication list attachments” means to include ‘list of references cited’. It the instruction means to include ‘list of references cited,’ I don’t see a downslide to the instruction clearly stating so.

  3. Can you use hyperlinks to link to your school’s anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies and procedures or should you put the policies in the Appendix?

  4. Can hyperlinks be included in institutional letters of support to document anti-harassment policies or other material that is required in a training program application?

  5. Is the discouragement for hyperlinks actually for the hyperlink or even the URL?

    It would be great to get guidance from NIH about whether the problem includes the URLs themselves or just the associated hyperlinks embedded in the text docs. URLs are functionally not the same as a hyperlink, and a number of databases have URLs that applicants want to include, e.g. products of large-scale consortia or institutes/universities–but not lab websites. Note that computational researchers include a lot of URLs for the websites/portals that host resources for their research.

    My understanding is that URLs for websites can be included in the References Cited for NIH applications, e.g. news articles and federal statistics. But I’m not sure whether the hyperlinks should be included in this case (particularly if it’s not for a government-affiliated website). Obviously the PMIDs can have the hyperlinks.

    Thanks for any clarification!

    1. This is an excellent question! The notice here (https://grants.nih.gov/grants/guide/notice-files/NOT-OD-20-174.html) is very unclear and conflates URL’s and hypertext/hyperlinks, which are not the same thing.

      Banning functional hyperlinks or hypertext alone would address the anonymity and security concerns, whereas banning typed-out but non-functional URL’s in the age of Google seems like it would accomplish very little. I can write in my application “our Center for blah blah at such and such has a website” and a reviewer can google “center blah blah such and such” and find the website in less time than it would take them to type out or copy-paste a URL.

      If security and anonymity are the primary concerns, automatically stripping hypertext from applicant documents seems like an easy fix, whereas rejecting applications that folks have spent weeks or months working on seems punitive and guaranteed to make researchers even more resentful of an already highly burdensome bureaucratic process.

      1. I agree that the use of the word hyperlink and hypertext is confusing. We are being asked to redact email addresses from letters of support and vendor websites from quotes, and I don’t believe this captures the spirit of what the NIH was originally trying to do. Is it possible to please issue further clarification on this point? Our PIs are terrified!

  6. Is there any general consensus on whether it is OK to hyperlink out to NIH RePORTER in a CDA proposal when discussing past work? If it is going to be referenced in the application as the grant number anyway, it just seems convenient to direct the reviewer to the page within RePORTER.

  7. Are PDF internal links allowed in NIH grants? For example, if I mention in the beginning of the research plan that additional details are provided later in the research plan and place a clickable internal link so that the reader can jump to that page of the research plan, is that considered an unallowable hyperlink? It does not reference an external source, so perhaps it is allowable? However, it may be that the NIH software will strip those internal hyperlinks when it assembles the master PDF for the reviewers. This would probably have to be limited to each PDF that is uploaded, and NIH grants now consist of up to 80 separate PDFs, so perhaps this will have limited utility (i.e., you cannot have an internal hyperlink in the research plan PDF that points to a section in the separate Human Subjects PDF)

  8. We need guidance from NIH on the following – what about hyperlinks/text in the Letterhead (containing the address and contactact information) that letters of support are on? For now, we have to manipulate our Letters of Support to remove the website in the company/institution letterhead portion, and it is leaving many worried that their application will be rejected without review for having a website in the letterhead. This seems to go too far and really should be spelled out in NIH policy that letterhead hypertext can be allowed.

    And what about reference to using “clinicaltrials.gov” in the Human Subjects documents, since the use of clincaltrials.gov is required? Is this an exception to the rule of no hyperlinks?

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