Case Study in Review Integrity – The Seminar Trip

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A series to raise awareness, encourage dialog and inspire creative problem solving for challenges in maintaining integrity in peer review.

Imagine you have been invited to present a seminar at a prestigious research university. Because the invitation came from graduate students and postdocs, who always engage in fresh and stimulating discussions about research, you accept the invitation.

The scenario below was reported to us by an NIH reviewer and clearly occurred before travel and other restrictions due to the COVID pandemic were in place. Nonetheless, it presents a cautionary tale about a breach of review integrity in the guise of a normal professional interaction (we’ve changed details and removed names).

As often occurs on seminar trips, you are scheduled to meet with students and postdocs first, then with individual faculty before the seminar, and finally to join a small group of the faculty, including the Department Chair, for dinner off-site.  As also often happens, you are an appointed member of an NIH study section and had reviewed a number of applications from this department.

As expected, you enjoy interacting with the students and postdocs in a lively conversation about their research projects.  However, you feel uncomfortable when a postdoc produces a summary statement from the review of an application by the study section where you are a member and wants to discuss a rebuttal. You politely decline to discuss the application or summary statement, explaining that doing so would violate review integrity.

Next, in meetings with individual faculty members, you hear thinly veiled references to funding woes, complaints that applications submitted to your study section had not been funded, and general criticism about NIH peer review.

The pressure continues through dinner, where the conversation turns to discussions of specific applications that had been reviewed by your study section. In the end, you regret having made the trip.

The NIH recognizes that professional interactions, including seminar trips, must continue while individuals serve in NIH peer review. However, pressuring an NIH reviewer or discussing applications in the review process with a reviewer is a serious violation of NIH peer review integrity (see Integrity and Confidentiality in NIH Peer Review)

Below, we offer some practical tips for avoiding pitfalls of review integrity and making seminar trips enjoyable for all involved.

Tips for officials of applicant organizations/host institutions:

  • Notify faculty, postdocs, and students in host departments that discussions of specific NIH applications with reviewers and Council members are prohibited.
  • Meet with the speaker in open groups, rather than in private or behind closed doors.
  • Avoid lavish dinners, honoraria, or other gifts that may be viewed as incentives.

Tips for reviewers and Council members, before accepting the invitation:

  • Clarify that you cannot discuss specific applications and will decline to do so. However, you would be pleased to explain the general NIH peer review process.
  • Specify that you are instructed to report to the NIH any such attempt as a violation of review integrity.

Remember that every stakeholder and participant in the NIH peer review process—whether it be researcher, reviewer, institutional official or NIH staff—shares responsibility in maintaining and upholding the integrity of review.

 

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

 

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