Case Study in Review Integrity – The Professional Grant Writer

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A series to raise awareness, encourage dialog and inspire creative problem solving for challenges in maintaining integrity in peer reviewThe case study below reflects a real-life situation.

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An NIH peer reviewer was approached by a well-known professional grant writing service to assist a client in preparing an NIH grant application.  The service advertised phenomenal success in securing NIH funding for its clients.

The reviewer was concerned by the invitation.  He contacted an NIH official and asked whether participation with the service would render him ineligible as an NIH reviewer.

NIH informed the reviewer that participating in the preparation of an NIH grant application or R&D contract proposal constitutes a conflict of interest (COI) in NIH peer review.  Therefore, he could remain eligible as an NIH reviewer but for the next three years would have to declare a COI with any application that he helped to prepare (see NIH Guide Notice NOT-OD-21-019).

In the end, the reviewer declined participation in the grant writing service.  NIH reached out to the grant writing service, who assured NIH that they were aware of the potential COI.

The reviewer’s story ends there, but NIH’s concern does not.

NIH views the failure of a reviewer to disclose COI as a breach of review integrity and will pursue the possible consequences outlined in NOT-OD-18-115. This includes notifying the individuals and institutions involved, terminating the reviewer’s peer review service, and more.

Maintaining integrity in the peer review process is essential to ensuring public trust in science and conducting a fair review.

Therefore, we encourage professional grant writing services to inform their grant writers — before they agree to participate in the service — of their obligation to declare conflicts of interest should they subsequently serve in NIH peer review.

 

For more, see our Taking Action – Case Studies in NIH Peer Review Integrity website.

22 Comments

  1. As an NIH grant reviewer myself, I am especially put off by applicants who secretly lack the ability to write their own grants. Not being able to do so is a sign of professional incompetence. Plus, being able to afford a professional grant writing service places other applicants at a disadvantage if they lack the funds. Where does this money come from? I suggest that all applicants be required to sign a statement attesting to their having written the grant proposal as an example of their own intellectual abilities.

    1. How can you be put off by an applicant who may or may not be keeping a secret from you? It’s worrying – though does not surprise me – to hear that an NIH reviewer would judge a grant application on anything other than the prescribed criteria. I would contend that there is a difference between the ability to write a professionally competent grant proposal, and the ability to get the same grant proposal funded by the NIH. That difference is key when it comes to commercial grant writing services.

      1. You have conflated my comment. I simply stated that an applicant is in the position of submitting a proposal for which the reviewer has no knowledge of whether the applicant actually wrote it. Thus, the review system allows a secretive process. Grant writing services are profiting off of this.

    2. I simply don’t have time. We are fairly new, can’t pay anyone, and a grant would make a huge difference. So, judge if you want but I’d love to hire a professional.

  2. As a reviewer, I believe that the grant face page should include a box indicating whether a professional grant writing service was used. The well-funded labs have to too many advantages to permit use of these services without some transparency.

  3. This more complicated than it seems. Many experienced reviewers read and comment, sometimes extesively, on drafts by colleagues and former trainees. While this is slightly different and creates no new coi, it does place applicants who do not get this prereview. I know some institutions review drafts as a matter of course.

  4. Are grant writing services secure? If not, proposals could be shared universally. That outcome is very worrisome.

  5. I absolutely agree that the use of a grant writing service provides an unfair advantage and that such use should be clearly stated on the grant application.

  6. [A case for grant writing services]

    I am interested to know how many academic labs utilize such grant writing services. I always assumed post-docs/super-docs/sr scientists were writing the grants. RPG (R01, eg) applications are certainly the bulk of what comes into NIH. But how many PIs actually submit the applications to NIH? How many are instead obliged to turn their paperwork over to administrators who review and submit on their behalf?

    Consider SBIR/STTR applications, which are submitted by small businesses. Those small biz lack the university resources of administrators to review and submit forms on their behalf. They don’t know what a Budget Justification section should look like. They don’t know about Bioharzards reports, Data/Resource Sharing pages or Vertebrate Animal Sections. and if human subjects are involved (??!!)… If the science and technology are meritorious, one hopes that reviewers get to read about it in a format that they recognize. Grant writers can help make sure all the pieces are there for a compliant application to get through CSR R&R. There’s more to a grant than the 6/12 page Research Plan.

  7. It’s not clear what is involved with “professional grant writing service” and “assistance,” and it seems like it could vary widely. For example, does this mean that the professional was a “ghost writer,” and wrote all or the majority of the proposal, or does it mean that the professional was a coach, proofreader, etc.? Is the professional hired by an individual investigator on their own, or as part of training and faculty development for the institution or department?

  8. Additionally, all in all, I’m not 100% clear—there seem to be some overlapping concerns or issues here. Is the ethical problem that the reviewer is providing the professional grant writer with unfair “insider” perspective and guidance that represents an unfair advantage for the applicant? Is it that by providing early guidance/feedback to a professional grant writer and their client on a proposal, someone serving in a formal reviewer capacity for NIH is supporting a profit-driven entity? That the use of any fee-based support services for proposal preparation is somehow unethical on the applicant’s part and/or should be disclosed? All of the above? Something else?

    1. It IS complicated. I know of people whose colleagues and spouses helped in a way that made an unfundable grant fundable. All of us are limited in our disciplinary training and work with and at times pay people to do those things we are not trained in. That’s not penalized. And yes, mentors also help in rewriting. In part this is education. There are also issues of non-native speaking people who simply cannot get some of the grammatical things right, including people who do excellent science. Good English or not, bad science won’t be funded. Grant writing services would ideally be career-assisting as well, particularly in instances of people without the advantages of privilege, but with good ideas, who are smart, and want to learn. A solution would need to be thought through.

  9. I am an occasional NIH grant reviewer and I suppose I could also be considered a professional grant writer in the sense that in my job I also help PIs at my institution write their grants. I don’t see lack of knowledge about NIH grantsmanship as incompetence: several of the PIs I assist are members of NAS and have other prestigious awards and honors for their scholarship. Sometimes I actually write draft text of sections of the strategy or many other documents. Other times I simply advise them on how to best write a document, e.g. the structure of the Specific Aims, how to use bolded text effectively, how to fill out the Human Subjects section, or whether a letter of support is required, etc. The learning curve is very steep for someone who does a grant once every 5 years or so. I work at a large R1 institution, and while some of the schools and colleges here have this kind of support to some degree, I took it upon myself to develop and offer this service to faculty closer to my area of scholarship because of the apparent need (and I enjoy it a lot). I sometimes think I should offer this service pro bono to some of the universities that aren’t top NIH grant recipients to level the playing field because it’s clear they aren’t quite as sure how to do this application effectively. I have received small payment for reviewing of grants at other institutions.
    Should I declare this activity? Of course, I would recuse myself from reviewing an application where I offered advice, especially for additional payment.

  10. I am a consulting epidemiologist and statistician in the freelance space. I offer many services: education in public health, data analysis services, helping writing journal articles, help with IRB/ethics, and helping write grants. I’m usually an investigator or consultant on the grants I write, and I’m usually an author on papers, but not always.

    I can’t tell if I’m a “professional grantwriting service”. I think this is a very classist idea. I am a woman who does everything because I can’t afford services. In fact, I’m a “necessity entrepreneur” because of all the sexism I faced trying to do epidemiology at the US Army and other parts of my own government. I learned biostatistics to avoid having to pay for statisticians. I think these rules are a very unfair way to shut people like me out of peer review for technicalities. I do not think this was a well thought out idea or vignette. I don’t think there are hard lines. I think you need more women and freelancers on your panels so these vignettes are reflective of real life and not some fantasy academia has about the lack of classism in public health. Then someone like me can actually have something to guide me in a practical sense.

  11. I see three distinct threads here–reviewer integrity, PI integrity, and (unremarked yet) service-provider integrity. Re that third arena, “The service advertised phenomenal success in securing NIH funding for its clients” sounds like a marketing pitch that merits a large grain of skepticism, particularly the adjective “phenomenal.” The grantwriting firms and consultants that I have run across offer a wide range of service types that fall largely fall into the bins of preproposal intelligence gathering, editing, compliance-checking, and presubmission expert review–and not the capability or proffer to generate the subject matter content of an NIH RPG (that is, to ghost-write a research proposal.) They are essentially an outsourced version of the elements that capable campus SPO and RD offices (central or departmental) provide to their investigators. If there are ethical or disclosure issues here, they are not exclusive to the engagement of external assistance in proposal preparation–because what difference does it make whether the CRA, RD professional, scientific editor, or “red team” reader who works with a PI or a team of coPIs is paid on a freelance basis or via salary? If grant proposing is somewhat like an athletic competition, then the R01 application prepared by a PI with zero assistance is as antiquated as a wooden pole at a track meet. Whether we are all better off for that is a moot question.

  12. I agree with Geo regarding competence if the applicant did not write the scientific content of the research plan. David’s response makes me think that should be made clear in the review criteria if it is not already, while hiring someone to proofread or deal with administrative components (do there need to be so many?) would be benign. Perhaps a few checkboxes for different aspects of assistance would address the issue.

    To Lauren’s ethical question, I read the original post and thought of an applicant paying a reviewer to write an application and then review his/her own writing, which would surely result in a favorable assessment. That would short-circuit the process, effectively paying someone to divert public funds. Outside such clear corruption, I think paying someone to write (not only advise on) the science is unethical because a reviewer will/should assume the applicant is the mind behind the writing, which relates to ability to carry out the project. If everything is disclosed, then my feeling is ‘no fraud, no problem’.

  13. There are grant writing services and grant writing guidance or review and critique services. One must not confuse the two. The later do not write he grant but offer advice and critique. Most large places I have worked use these services especially for their staff who are not super strong on writing in English. The PI is still the one responsible for the research plan content.

  14. Writing grants is an intellectual work. If someone gets a professional service then he or she is telling that they are not capable of writing grants and capable of critical thinking, but they have money to cover their deficiencies. I think people using a grant writing service should disclose that. I assume the grants are awarded based on novel ideas, critical thinking, and ability to pay attention to details. Getting outside help for these would put several bright investigators at a disadvantage.

    1. Yes, Rafat – I agree, completely. Scientists who are true scholars must be up to the task of presenting their unique ideas own their own.

  15. Is using an external professional grant writing service any different (or “worse” in any sense) than using the internal grant writing services that many institutions provide? Large research universities usually have a variety of services to help applicants and many units within such institutions have staff whose main function is to work on preparing grant applications. In our center we write our own grants, but they usually involve collaboration among several people.

  16. There is a fundamental misunderstanding of grant writing services here. Grant writers don’t develop the preliminary data or construct the project. They simply ‘tidy up’ the presentation of the information and highlight areas that require expanding or eliminating. Sometimes junior scientists have blind spots and no one at their institution to read their grant applications. Unfortunately the grant application process seems to have evolved into ‘grantsmanship’ rather than scientific merit. That’s why the professional grant writers can be helpful.

  17. What is the difference between hiring a scientist to work on grant writing and hiring a scientist to work on another essential function of the research enterprise?

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