The February 2020 grant submission cycle threw everyone for a loop.

The Backstory

Many applicants received submission warnings about having figures/images in the Abstract and Specific Aims.  SAY WHAT?!?  University grant offices had not received any prior communications from the Office of Extramural Research (OER) about new policies for figures in the abstract or specific aims sections.  What’s more, the Center for Scientific Review (CSR), the presumed office behind the warning, was caught off-guard as universities began calling for explanations.  The warning was news to them, too. (CSR does not set the submission warnings.)

Thank You, Twitter-verse

At the time of writing this post, Twitter conversations were the only public, written acknowledgement of the confusion and attempted resolution.  And, the line of explanation was corroborated by our local grants office.

  • The warning, while unexpected, was meant to pertain to only the Abstract.
    • future policy will disallow figures from abstracts (which become publicly available for funded grants) to avoid copyright infringement and to avoid coding challenges within NIH RePORTER.
    • For unknown reasons, the warning system evaluated Aims and Abstract as a single unit.
  • CSR will NOT reject applications with figures in Specific Aims.

Round Two

With May and June submissions being prepared, the inquiries have resumed, and no NIH policies have been released.  Applicants have been directed toward the (little-known?) eRA Validations document (updated March 23, 2021).  Turning to page 93, we see that Rule #000.45, which called for graphic file warnings in the Project Summary/Abstract, Project Narrative, and Specific Aims was new for December, 2019, but was disabled in February 2020.  So, for now, images in abstracts or Specific Aims are not a problem.  However, we need to expect that a formal policy is coming.

Key Takeaways

  1. Start omitting figures from your abstracts – expect that the policy is coming.
  2. Specific Aims CAN include figures.
  3. Warnings do not kill a grant submission. They should prompt your grants officer to ask CSR Division of Receipt & Referral for more information; a change to the grant may not be necessary.

Happy Writing! (…on Forms-F, of course.)

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