A couple of posts ago I shared a pretty unpleasant experience I had after peer-reviewing a grant application. In short my anonymity appeared to have been breached and I received ,what I took to be, a thinly veiled threat from the grant’s author.
Some of the comments that followed thanked me for bring the case to light but were critical because I hadn’t gone far enough and named names. Therefore what had the post achieved? I take the point, but I’m still not prepared to name the persons or organisations.
However, I did contact the funding body involved who were willing to investigate the matter. They also suggested that I first file a freedom-of-information request asking for details on how anonymity is protected and with whom reviewer identities are shared.
For the sake of completion I asked the main science research councils in the UK (not just the one that was involved in my incident) for the same information (details below).
In short most committees (that’s typically upwards of two dozen people) are aware of the identify of reviewers. This is probably not news to most, but I figure its good to know who knows who you are.
In most cases identities are revealed in the committee meeting. Which made me consider how the reviewer knew my identify before the committee sat. Until I remembered that I had reviewed the grant twice (it had been rejected the first time, but a resubmission was requested). So a panel member from the first meeting must have made a note (mentally or otherwise) of my name and then shared it.
It strikes me that its rather too easy for reviewer anonymity to be breached. So what’s to be done? In the short term maybe its worth checking who is on a panel. Then if you know of a relationship between a member and the proposal’s author, that might result in a leak, refuse to review the grant. In the longer term, should the system change so that reviewers are truly anonymous? And as for me, my next step is to take up the offer of that investigation.
And in case you are interested here are the more detailed responses from the research councils.
The BBSRC website provides a document called “Peer review and freedom of information’. Part of which states that the identify of reviewers is
‘…available to the members of the peer review body.’
I asked for clarification on what constitutes a ‘peer review body’. To which they responded
‘.. peer review body refers to Research Committees and any other ad hoc panels that assess grant applications.’
they added that
Their identity [of reviewers] is revealed to the peer review body only as part of normal business meeting
The other research councils have similar freedom of information documents to the BBSRC, however they are less clear on the policies with regards to reviewer identities. So I asked them directly if identities are revealed to panels/committees and how anonymity is assured.
NERC replied :
Panels see the reviewer names but they are required to keep all the business of the meeting confidential including reviewers names and which members of the panel introduce the proposal and we rely on them to do that. That confidentiality is set out in the Reviewer Protocols. These are available on the NERC website and part of signing up to the Peer Review College. Access to proposal information is via Je-S [ grant submission/review system] and panel members are required to sign up to the Reviewer Protocols before they can see the proposal information in order to review it. Details of the Reviewer Protocols can be found at:
The EPSRC‘s statement was:
Each reviewer has an anonymised reference for each proposal they are sent, but their identity is indicated in the meeting schedule provided to the panel members. Each schedule is customised so that if the panel member has a conflict of interest the reviewers remain anonymous for the affected proposal.
All panel members are sent guidance which includes our code of practice based on the Nolan Committee’s seven principles of public life – for further details please refer to the link below.
And from the MRC I received:
At the board/panel meeting itself the names of the reviewers are projected onto a screen for each application in turn. This information is not provided in hard copy to any of the board/panel members.
At Fellowship panels, the information is provided to the chair of the meeting and the information is securely destroyed immediately following the meeting. Other panel members may request the information at the meeting and may be provided with this information verbally at the meeting to enable better decision making.
The Biomedical catalyst panel meeting is currently the only exception to this as information is revealed to panel members prior to the meeting. This is because the meeting is jointly run with the Technology Strategy Board.