A series to raise awareness, encourage dialog and inspire creative problem solving for challenges in maintaining integrity in peer review.
What would you do if, as the Dean of Research at a major university, a group of students, postdocs, and junior faculty reported that they had been pressured into writing reviewer critiques for a senior faculty member?
We were so impressed by the careful handling of just such a situation by an institutional official recently that we wanted to share this story with you (we’ve changed details and fictionalized names).
Dr. Lee, Dean of Research at a major research university, received an anonymous, written complaint against Dr. Williams, a Distinguished Professor in her university’s medical school. According to the complaint, Dr. Williams was sharing NIH grant applications with members of his laboratory with requests for them to complete his written critiques as an NIH peer reviewer. The complaint indicated that Dr. Williams also pressured junior, non-tenured faculty in the department to do the same. All had been instructed by Dr. Williams not to disclose this practice or their evaluations to anyone else.
Dr. Williams had clearly violated the NIH confidentiality statement that every reviewer certifies before gaining access to grant applications for a review meeting. The agreement in part, prohibits a peer reviewer from ‘sharing applications, proposals, or meeting materials with anyone who has not been officially designated to participate in the peer review meeting, including but not limited to colleagues, lab members, fellows, students, applicants, offerors or employees of an offeror.’
In response to the complaint, Dr. Lee convened an investigation committee and analyzed Dr. Williams’ archived emails. During the investigation, Dr. Williams was placed on administrative leave and not allowed entry to his laboratory. Each member of the Williams’ laboratory and each junior faculty member in the department was interviewed individually by the investigation committee.
Dr. Williams stated in his interview with the investigation committee that his only intent had been to educate students, postdocs, and junior faculty in grantsmanship and peer review.
Ultimately, the investigation committee found that Dr. Williams violated the confidentiality of NIH peer review by sharing NIH grant applications and submitting critiques that were not his own. In addition, the committee found that he violated university policies through an “abuse of power” by pressuring students, postdocs, and faculty to perform his review duties.
Dr. Lee also notified the NIH Office of Extramural Research of the committee’s findings, out of concern for the integrity of NIH peer review. Because reviewers are recruited for their expert opinions, not those of their laboratory personnel, we assessed Dr. Williams’ recent reviews to see that sufficient, additional expertise had been available for each application to which he had been assigned.
Finally, the institution stripped Dr. Williams of his Distinguished Professor title; imposed administrative sanctions, including an agreement to add special award conditions on any current and future NIH grants in which he may be involved; and allowed members of his laboratory to relocate to other departments in the university.
Pressuring an employee or colleague to write a peer review of NIH grant applications on your behalf is simply wrong, unethical and a serious violation of NIH peer review integrity. We are glad Dr. Lee took the steps she did to handle the situation. What would you have done differently if you were in Dr. Lee’s position?