A series to raise awareness and inspire creative problem solving of the challenges in maintaining integrity in peer review
Sometimes it takes detective work to unearth attempts to undermine the integrity of peer review.
Take the case of Dr. Smith, one of the reviewers on a study section in the Center for Scientific Review. The scientific review officer (SRO) would like Dr. Smith to review an application with Dr. Jones as principal investigator (PI).
In checking for potential conflicts of interest (COI), the SRO cast a wider net and found something troubling. Dr. Smith, one of the reviewers currently set to review the application listing Dr. Jones’ as PI, had been listed as one of the key personnel on an application with Dr. Jones as PI that was under review in another, recent study section.
It was obvious Dr. Smith had a clear COI as a reviewer for the application with Dr. Jones as PI. The COI instructions for reviewers state that a reviewer may not review certain applications and must leave the room when the reviewer, within the past three years, has been a collaborator or has had any other professional relationship with any person on the application who has a major role.
In this case, Dr. Smith, who is being considered as a reviewer for the application, is a professional associate of Dr. Jones, the PI on the application. However, Dr. Smith had not declared a conflict with that application.
The SRO immediately notified the review chief, who unearthed more information when searching PubMed. They found that Drs. Smith and Jones co-authored multiple research publications within the past two years. Coauthoring publications within the past 3 years also is a clear conflict of interest (NOT-OD-13-010) .
The review chief alerted the research integrity officer (RIO), who found more irregularities. Turned out that Dr. Smith was on the study sections that reviewed a few more grant applications listing Dr. Jones as PI. At no time had Dr. Smith declared a COI with the applications. The RIO alerted the NIH Office of Extramural Research (OER).
OER terminated Dr. Smith’s service in peer review indefinitely and the application listing Dr. Jones as PI was reassigned to a Special Emphasis Panel for initial peer review.
All participants and stakeholders in the peer review system are responsible for its integrity. Whether you are a reviewer, PI, or NIH staff, each of those roles is crucial. NIH is paying attention, and NIH is taking action.
This scenario is fictitious, but based on real events. Stay tuned as the case unfolds. If you want more on the topic, please listen to this NIH All About Grants podcast conversation on how NIH manages conflicts of interest during the peer review process (MP3 / Transcript).