In 2021, we wrote that appropriately acknowledging NIH grant support allows us to properly assess award outputs and make recommendations for future research directions. This is a term and condition of award under long-standing federal law. Our Grants and Funding site provides guidance: grants should only be cited if they directly supported the work described in the paper and work described in the paper is clearly within scope of the grant award. We still see examples, though, of researchers improperly overciting grants that are unrelated with the research, be it an honest error or intentional. This post revisits the issue as a reminder for the research community about the importance of properly citing NIH grant support and accurately representing funding support for the published study.
NIH Grants Policy Statement Section 4.2.1 states “all HHS recipients must acknowledge Federal funding when issuing statements, press releases, requests for proposals, bid invitations, and other documents describing projects or programs funded in whole or in part with Federal money.” Therefore, researchers are required to acknowledge NIH grants that support the work described in their papers, but only if they contributed to the project.
Though we do not collect data on how often overcitation happens, we come across it in different ways. We have seen situations where an NIH grant was linked to a paper, yet private sector sponsors or non-federal grants fully supported the research. Some of these come to our attention because NIH systems like My Bibliography connect publications and grants. It takes effort to untangle these errors when working out the details with the researchers involved.
Sometimes we see publications that cite many grants. If the research does not involve something like a large-scale multi-site clinical trial network that would involve several awards, we may take a closer look. If warranted, we reach out to the recipient to learn more about whether the grants were cited correctly or not. Maybe there was an honest mistake? Or, maybe it was intentional?
Here are a couple of recent examples:
- One published study reported on research involving human participants, yet the grant that was acknowledged did not allow for human participant research. This led to concerns that the researchers may have violated laws that protect human subjects. Applications that propose work with humans also undergo additional scrutiny during peer review to ensure proper human subjects’ policies are followed. We found out the researcher on the original paper simply cited that unrelated grant because they thought it would benefit them in some way.
- A paper cited a grant as the source of support, but the author was not linked to the award. The grant, however, was awarded to the institution where the author worked. The content of the grant had nothing to do with what was discussed in the paper. It came to our attention because the National Library of Medicine contacted the designated principal investigator on the grant (who was not one of the paper’s authors) directing the researcher to deposit the paper in PubMed Central. As the principal investigator and the cited grant had nothing to do with the paper, there was no obligation to deposit it. The author on the paper cited the grant deliberately without the knowledge of the principal investigator.
There are times when an author will cite an NIH grant to disclose potential or perceived conflicts of interest. We appreciate the transparency, but receiving salary support on another NIH grant is not an inherent conflict of interest. This is because the grant funds go to the institution, not the researcher. We would recommend that if a researcher wants to be transparent about salary support from another grant, to clearly state to the journal that the separate grant did not support the research reported in the article.
We are paying attention to overcitation as part of our proper stewardship of taxpayer funds and to assure that the results of NIH funding are properly reported. We appreciate your efforts to assure that researchers cite grant support in their publications only if the support directly contributed to the published study.