Want to win grant funding: It’s better to be a man, with lots of friends. What’s going on?

The title of this article may sound like a joke, but unfortunately it’s not. Amazingly, two recently published surveys of funding agencies (in this case the Swiss National Science Foundation, or SNSF, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) actually did suggest that your chances of winning funding are higher if people know you and view you favourably within your field and if you are a man.


Things have to change.


Indeed, on receipt of these survey results, completed in 2016, the SNSF moved immediately to close down the opportunity for applicants to nominate ‘preferred’ reviewers when submitting grant applications. Now, as in most cases when authors submit articles to journals, there is only the opportunity to ‘deselect’ or nominate ‘non-preferred’ reviewers and not to make any ‘preferred’ selections. That this system is open to abuse will come as no surprise to journal managers.


I’ve worked for more than 15 years as an editor with a major publishing company and I’ve seen a lot of bad behaviour: authors making up and email address in our online system so they can control their own peer reviews, even entering the names and contact details of their relatives in the hope that their papers will be steered in their direction. Editors are most often responsible for general subject areas and will not know your particular field well, let alone the names of suitable reviewers. People will do anything to enhance their chances of acceptance.


The second set of survey results regarding grants submitted to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, are less obvious but no less shocking, revealing the surprising finding that male authors are apparently more likely to use ‘broad’ words when describing their research (e.g., detection, control, bacteria). Female authors, in contrast, apparently more often use so-called ‘narrow’ words in grant writing (e.g., brain, community, oral). These differences translate to clear variance in funding probability as reviewers and assessors relate to, and understand more easily, general, broad terms when reading about research. We emphasise this in our workshops, webinars, and training materials on ‘effective grant writing’. It’s worth bearing in mind that grant proposal assessors are not likely to be specialists in your subject area and so applications must be written in general, interesting, and eye-catching terms which have a broad appeal. Such writing techniques can be learned.


In general terms, the results of these two surveys also highlight the clear need for so-called ‘double-blind’ review in both academic publishing and in the assessment of grant applications. More and more journals are moving in this direction: The identity of both authors and reviewers are hidden from one another, known only to the editor.


This system works: Authors around the world are deeply concerned about bias in peer review, related to country of origin and institution. We know that publishing companies use submission information to target their marketing, for example: You won’t receive an automated ‘use our language polishing services’ email if you submit a paper to a journal from a UK or US institution, but you will if the submission comes in from China or Japan.


Surveys of trends in peer review also clearly show that your article is most likely to be assessed by a white male from a native English-speaking country.


How can these worrying trends be reversed? Other than ‘double-blind’ systems of assessment, training is key. As more and more English as a second language (ESL) authors write up and publish their work in leading journals, editorial boards and reviewer pools can be expanded. Author experience and knowledge of trends in the academic publishing and grant writing industries are vital.


Charlesworth Knowledge workshops and training courses can help you develop your knowledge in order to better navigate the peer review system and enhance your chances of successfully winning grant funding.


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