Why Can’t NIH Study Sections Operate More Like Journal Reviews?
Why can’t NIH Study Sections operate more like journal reviews? I’ve been publishing in scientific journals for over 15 years, and have served as a manuscript reviewer and editor plenty of times. The process involves ONE team of reviewers, who see the first submission and any subsequent edited versions of the same article. I can only recall one time when I declined to see an edited re-draft, and that was because my review was much less favorable than the other reviewers’. I felt that my second review would be negatively slanted, and I didn’t want to be a roadblock to the authors. (Is this a “nice” attitude from a female scientist? If I were male, would I have made the same choice? Perhaps that will be a future blog post!)
I have also been submitting NIH grant proposals for nearly 15 years. What has become apparent in my recent Study Section reviews is that the assigned reviewers are NOT the same as the original reviewers. So the first team of 3 scientists weighed in and gave me their suggestions. With my co-investigators, we then respond to their critique and resubmitted the proposal. Then a different team of scientists read the resubmission, and add their NEW critiques. This results in an ever-changing goalpost. To use a sports analogy, when you play soccer you are aiming for one goal, and that goal is fixed. Can you imagine playing soccer if the goal moves?!
If you have ever served as an editor, you know exactly what I’m talking about, and may have used this phenomenon to your advantage. The initial reviewers weren’t as enthusiastic about the article as you were, and you want to “rescue” the publication. So you ask the authors to make a few changes and then re-upload it as a new submission. This allows you, as the editor, to send the article to different reviewers. Voila! New more-positive reviews, and the authors have feedback they can work with. Success!
With NIH and perhaps other federal funding agencies, there are TWO shots at funding for a given proposal. Yes, yes, I know about ways to work around that. But if one of those opportunities is burned by having a different set of reviewers, then your precious time is wasted. Those months putting together the proposal are wasted. Your tenure or non-tenure clock is ticking. And now for sure you’ll have a new set of scientists looking at your next submission, because now you have to re-craft those ideas into a NEW (A0) submission. So the goalposts have moved again.
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