Some time ago I received a grant proposal to review. Its was from an eminent professor.
I was extremely disappointed, on numerous accounts, with the quality of the proposal. In short I thought it relied very heavily on the authors standing in the community and only paid lip service to the science. And so (naively) safe in the knowledge that my review would remain anonymous, I gave a frank assessment of it. I advised the panel to reject the proposal.
Satisfied that I had done my job I gave it no more thought until, a few months later, I received an email from the proposal’s author. It started …
I have had a review – see below – for a pending application with [research council/charity]. It is of the “unhelpful” type the community gets, and looks as if it from an unsympathetic, uninformed, prejudiced non-expert – the other reviews were all very positive, but I now have to answer the points.
What followed was a spurious query about some detail in one of my papers, which he/she apparently needed to help address the comments I’d given as an ‘anonymous’ referee.
It seemed to me that the real reason for the email was to tell me off. But how could this happen? How could the author have found out that I had refereed the proposal? So I sort advice from senior colleagues who had sat on research council/charity committees. And I was shocked by what they told me. It seemed that it wasn’t unusual for the committees to know who the referees are, but even worse committee members were often happy to share this information with eminent grant applicants.
Since this episode I’ve been in a quandary. What should I do when asked to review a proposal from a high profile scientist? Should I be truthful about what I think, risk being found out and so make enemies? Should I lie and write glowing reviews based on who the applicant is and not what is proposed? Or should I refuse to review applications from the higher echelons of community? To be honest I’m still at a loss.
There’s more. The email went on …
Also, I am getting personal comments from others in the field [lists of other eminent names] to ensure that the [research council/charity name] panel does understand the importance of the approach, to help all of us doing [technique], and not create a negative and highly damaging impression of [technique] at their panel from this kind of review – it playing right into the hands of the [another technique] community which is well represented on this panel.
So it seems that, if you have the connections, its acceptable to seek one’s own referees and lobby the panel with them.
The whole episode has left me with a very bitter taste and a complete lack of confidence in the validity of the peer-review system.
Finally, this all happened sometime ago, and since then I’ve thought long and hard about whether I should make the incident public. After all, pointing out these goings on is hardly going to make me any friends. But I’m convinced that giving an honest assessment of an application in a peer review has already damaged my chances of getting grants. Therefore I wanted to share this cautionary tale with early career scientists who may still believe in the system.
P.S. The proposal was funded.