As well as acting as a peer-reviewer for scientific papers in your field, its also common to be asked to review grant applications. This can feel like both an honour and a great responsibility: holding the success, or failure, of someone else’s research programme in your hands. Funding applications are critical to academic success. In many countries, national grant funding schemes financed by government research councils are the main ways by which researchers and teams support their endeavours; often, these schemes are open for funding just a few times each year, perhaps less. Putting together (hopefully) successful funding applications is thus one very important part of any academic job: money awarded for research is used to assess academics, including applications for promotion or tenure.
Just as with scientific article peer review, however, it’s very important to maintain ethical standards, starting with when to say ‘no’.
Requests to review the work of colleagues should be refused in cases of ‘conflicts of interest’. This means that if you honestly feel you cannot be impartial, a request should be rejected. ‘Conflicts of interest’ mean recent participation (good or bad) in a project with one of the authors of the paper or grant submitted for review, recent negative interactions (such as, for example, a negative review of one of your papers by the colleagues now authoring the material that has come to you, or – in the case of grants especially – a very similar research programme or question within your own work).
Are you working in a similar area to the scope of the grant proposal that has just passed across your desk? Take a step back and consider if this might be the case: as well as being a so-called ‘expert’ in the field, human nature means that you might be tempted to evaluate the proposal in light of your own ongoing research. Simply too close for comfort.
Most funding agencies and publishing houses maintain codes of ethics for authors and reviewers; many are signatories to the Committee on Publishing Ethics (COPE) which requires full disclosure of any and all so-called conflicts of interest when participating in scholarly processes such as peer review.
Taking a proposal for review when you know your own research area is very close is a conflict of interest: you would be very interested to learn the contents of the proposal you’ve been asked to review (review requests are usually made by passing just a title and/or abstract to a potential evaluator). You are presented with a way to catch up on the research of others, maybe see how your results marry with those of another team. Err on the side of caution and maintain this ethical standard: you can always ask a colleague at your university, or research advisor if you have a question about what constitutes a conflict in these cases, even send an email to the funding agency and ask them. If the funding agency knows the whole picture before you start the review you are free and clear.
Does this sort of thing happen in academia? Sure. All the time. I’ve had numerous conversations with colleagues at conferences where issues around intellectual property (IP) have arisen: reviewing someone else’s grant proposal is a very good way to find out about what others are working on and what sorts of ideas they might have for new hypotheses or research directions. Concerns in this area about conflicting research teams is one reason that scholarly journals allow submitting authors to ‘de-select’ colleagues from whom they feel they might not receive fair treatment. Indeed, in many cases (at least in my experience) editors are then simply not allowed (by the online journal manuscript handling system) to send articles out for review to people in this category. Funding agencies work in the same way: they ask researchers submitting grant proposals to recommend (and deselect) reviewers and they also perform searches to identify suitable researchers to evaluate proposals. As an aside, its well worthwhile putting your name forward as a reviewer within your overall subject area both to your national research council and cross-cutting agencies, like the European Union Horizon 2020 programme; funding agencies will send out email alerts requesting potential reviewers to sign up on their portals and make themselves available and this can provide you with very valuable experience.
Issues of research ethics and integrity are very tricky to navigate, especially these days in the era of rapid data sharing, open access, and preprint servers. Perhaps one way to protect and give full credit for research ideas is simply use of the latter: protected by innovations such as the blockchain, ideas, hypotheses, and newly collected data can be immediately lodged as ‘works in progress’ on preprint servers (or similar), time-stamped so as to fully protect their originators IP.
As a COPE member, The Charlesworth Group is committed to research integrity at all stages of the publishing process. We provide training for researchers in this tricky area: Check out our range of courses and workshops (offered via our education service, Charlesworth Knowledge) to see if you, or your team, would benefit from an ethics and research integrity refresher course.