Case Study in Research Integrity: This Application Feels Familiar


Imagine you are reviewing an application for an NIH study section meeting, and you come across an application that seems just a bit too familiar. The scientific question falls within your wheelhouse. The methods and strategies seem spot on. And isn’t that how you format your text? In this case study, we will discuss how plagiarism in the grant application process is handled at NIH and remind the research community about the importance of maintaining confidentiality of the peer review process. The scenario presented is based on real-world events, with all names and identifiers removed or changed.

Dr. ABC found themselves in this situation. While serving as a peer reviewer, they were assigned an application containing sections that looked very similar to their own application submitted several years prior. The current application identifies Dr. XYZ as the project’s lead, who also serves as principal investigator on other NIH awards. ABC immediately contacted the NIH Scientific Review Officer overseeing the study section to share their concerns.

The Scientific Review Officer asked the NIH Office of Extramural Research (OER) to take a look and see if plagiarism may have occurred with XYZ’s application. Upon closer inspection, the text in the Procedures and Data Collection sections were found to be too similar to text from ABC’s applications to be coincidental.

Looking back at the roster from when ABC’s original application was reviewed, NIH staff identified a few long-term collaborators of XYZ’s. Those reviewers had had access to ABC’s application at that time. Maybe that was not a mere coincidence either. At this point, we referred the preliminary findings to the HHS Office of Research Integrity (ORI), who have the authority and responsibility to review and monitor investigations of research misconduct allegations involving NIH funding. Though ORI had the lead, we still worked closely together with them. 

ORI reached out to XYZ’s institution next, as they were the applicant. With consent from ABC and their institution, ORI showed them the two applications along with the document-to-document comparison report.

XYZ’s institution then began their own internal research misconduct proceedings as part of the ORI review. They engaged with XYZ throughout the process to learn more. During those conversations, XYZ admitted to receiving ABC’s application from their collaborator, who served as a peer reviewer. XYZ also admitted to copying parts of that application into their own application.

The institution was in regular communication with OER too because the investigation involved a pending NIH application. When the institution’s investigation was complete, the institution informed us they made findings of research misconduct against Dr. XYZ, and also retracted their application. As a result, they prohibited XYZ from serving on NIH committees or being designated as principal investigator on applications for three years. They required XYZ to certify in writing that the ideas, results, and words were properly attributed in grant applications, and to develop and teach a seminar on research misconduct.

We are grateful to reviewers who raise any concerns about the integrity of the peer review process or applications with NIH Review staff. As explained more in the related required reviewer training, these concerns are taken seriously, especially when plagiarism or other forms of research misconduct are involved.

Importantly, we too will take actions based on the severity of the peer review violation (see NOT-OD-22-044). Separate from the steps that XYZ’s institution took, we removed XYZ from serving as a peer reviewer going forward. A committee of NIH grants management and program staff will also look at all of XYZ’s progress reports and other related grant submissions for the next three years. If no additional issues are found, then NIH will allow XYZ to again be designated on grant applications.

What about the collaborator?

We reached out to their institution as well. As part of that institution’s investigation, the collaborator admitted to accessing ABC’s application through their peer review service, retaining peer review materials after the review meeting ended, and sharing those materials with people unaffiliated with the study section. The institution fired the employee, and we removed them from review service.

We are grateful to those who serve in peer review. However, peer review service is a privilege, extended at NIH’s invitation. Those who undermine the confidentiality rules (such as keeping any relevant materials after the meeting is over) will not be invited to serve in NIH peer review again. These and other requirements are outlined in the confidentiality agreement that must be certified and signed before serving as a reviewer. Upholding these rules is critical for ensuring that researchers feel they can trust NIH with their candid, sensitive, and proprietary ideas. It is important to remind reviewers about the consequences when such a breach in integrity happens.

More case studies on research integrity may be found on our website.

Editorial note, December 12, 2023: Institutions, not NIH, are responsible for making personnel decisions related to their employees. Oftentimes, the identified non-compliance extends to institutional faculty or staff rules or policies. NIH will discuss the impact on NIH awards and work with the institution on any needed grant actions.


  1. Can you please explain how punishments are determined? ORI appears to issue sanctions from mere supervision to multi-year bans to outright permanent blocks from future review or award. It is never clear how they arrive at different sanctions, and it would be a great service to the community to explain this.

    In this case study, if you are serious about integrity of review, shouldn’t XYZ be banned permanently, not just for 3 years?

  2. Person 1: admitted receiving and plagiarizing confidential grant application, gets 3 years probation.
    Person 2: shares confidential grant application, gets fired.
    The two outcomes seem highly disproportionate to me.

    1. Thank you for commenting. Institutions, not NIH, are responsible for making personnel decisions related to their employees. Oftentimes, the identified non-compliance extends to institutional faculty or staff rules or policies. NIH will discuss the impact on NIH awards and work with the institution on any needed grant actions.

    2. An even more relevant question is what would have happened if XYZ got no substantive punishment. For example, the institution withdrew that application and told XYZ to do an 30min online integrity training.

      What does NIH do if the punishment is clearly too light?

  3. Wondering about how NIH would perceive a similar situation with respect to the similarity of the grant applications, but with one altered fact? Suppose that the collaborator for Dr. XYZ had formerly been a collaborator/postdoc/grad student for Dr. ABC, and had been the original author of the parts of the grant application that were previously submitted by Dr. ABC… and now, as a collaborator of Dr. XYZ, has re-used those same passages nearly verbatim in support of the application submitted by Dr. XYZ? Would this represent plagiarism or any other kind of ethical violation in the eyes of NIH?

  4. Agree with ‘disproportionate’ comment above. One suspects that “Dr. XYZ … who also serves as principal investigator on other NIH awards” was regarded as too valuable to that institution for anything other than a slap on the wrist. One also suspects that the guilty collaborator wasn’t so valuable to their institution (i.e., NOT multiply-funded?). Also in question is the power dynamic between XYZ and the collaborator. Which party prompted the exchange?

    1. Thank you for commenting. Institutions, not NIH, are responsible for making personnel decisions related to their employees. Oftentimes, the identified non-compliance extends to institutional faculty or staff rules or policies. NIH will discuss the impact on NIH awards and work with the institution on any needed grant actions.

  5. This hypothetical (redacted) case is very similar to what happened to me 15 years ago. I was primary reviewer on a grant that clearly plagiarized me. But when I brought this to the attention of the SRO, who in turn alerted the office of research integrity at CSR, I was told that the review process would continue and that I could not bring up this “alleged plagiarism” at the study section meeting. I refused to participate in this process and resigned from the study section in protest. I learned later that the review proceeded without me and that the grant was rated well but not well enough to be funded. Subsequently the office of research integrity did a formal investigation, confirmed my allegation of plagiarism, and sanctioned the PI. But what if the study section had, indeed, rated the proposal high enough to be funded? Why was the grant not administratively withdrawn PRIOR TO study section review, pending an investigation? Perhaps the system now demands such an administrative withdrawal, at least in cases such as mine in which it was clear that I was plagiarized. The subsequent investigation, not surprisingly, revealed that others were plagiarized, and it was NOT because my research publications were inappropriately shared by myself or prior reviewers.

    1. NIH takes all allegations of research misconduct seriously, including those raised by peer reviewers. Such allegations are handled in a manner consistent with the U.S. Public health Service Policies on Research Misconduct, 42 CFR part 93, which require that the allegation be assessed before proceeding to inquiry or investigation, and which may or may not lead to a finding of research misconduct. The role of the peer review committee is to assess the scientific merit of an application. When a reviewer makes an allegation of research misconduct, the reviewer is placed in conflict with the application, and the review continues. At the same time, the allegation proceeds through the confidential research misconduct proceedings. If the application is being considered for funding after review, NIH may hold funding until the research misconduct proceedings are complete, and if the investigation results in findings of research misconduct, the application may be withdrawn.

Before submitting your comment, please review our blog comment policies.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *