General thoughts on writing useful reviews

I wrote a lot of grants in my first 3 years as faculty. A LOT. Nearly 30. And so I’ve read a few reviews, and a few summaries of review panel discussions that took place over my grants. I take reviewing grants incredibly seriously because I know that more often than not, someone’s career is on the line. If I agreed to do the review then the applicant absolutely deserves the most careful review that I can possibly deliver. These reviews can be very instructive if correctly written.  They can also be totally useless if not carefully done. I have gotten a totally useless review or two, and that meant waiting out a year to re-submit a proposal and not knowing what to change on it in the resubmission.

From the perspective of the reviewee, the most important thing to remember when you are writing a grant review is to let the applicants know the specific strengths and weaknesses of their proposal (I feel like the new NIH format is well set up for this BTW, but it still depends what you put into it). Feedback like ‘aim 2 is weak’ is not particularly helpful. If you are going to make a general statement about a weak section in the proposal, buttress that with the specific points about WHAT exactly in those experiments is weak. Are the experiments unjustified? Is the technique inappropriate? Have the applicants not considered the range of experimental results that they might get and proposed alternatives for each case? No preliminary data? This takes considerable thought on the part of the reviewer to put such reviews together, but this is someone’s career you have in your hands. Wouldn’t you want the same kind of thoughtful consideration?

Feel free to comment on the positives (if there are any). I think sometimes we get in this mode that we have to be ‘critical’ when we are reviewing something. But being critical doesn’t mean being negative, and it sure doesn’t mean never pointing out a positive.  And shoot- while C PP would say that science isn’t a care bears tea party- some positive reinforcement where applicable goes a long way to keeping morale up in what right now, quite frankly, is a pretty shitty dismal funding atmosphere.

Once you have a huge laundry list(s) of strengths and weaknesses- find a way to prioritize so you can give the applicants a feel for which weaknesses (or strengths) were key in determining the score that they got, and/or what the deal-breakers were. If you feel that the proposal has a major flaw, feel free to say ‘this is a major flaw’.  I always appreciated (HA! After a couple of nights drinking maybe) it when reviewers let me know exactly what needed fixing, when something was unfixable, and when I shouldn’t bother sending something back.

And one final note. Us applicants appreciate it when reviewers use professional (and positive when possible) language and stick to the facts.  Snarky or inflammatory language is pointless in a review. Data or lack thereof is not ‘disturbing’- moral failings are ‘disturbing’.  Saying that a certain element ‘would be nice’ is unhelpful. More important to outline WHY a certain element would strengthen the proposal. Saying the PI… who may be  junior faculty … is young and naïve doesn’t accomplish anything except making that person feel small. This kind of stuff in a review is unnecessary.

(And actually, although I wrote this about grant reviews- all of this applies to manuscript reviews as well)


11 thoughts on “General thoughts on writing useful reviews

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  3. Have the applicants not considered the range of experimental results that they might get and proposed alternatives for each case?

    This kind of painfully boring gibberish is no longer possible with the 12-page R01 grant format. Good riddance.

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  5. Amen, sista. I enjoy writing the positives about any paper or grant. Part of our job is to point out areas for improvement, but I still appreciate beautifully executed experiments or clever experimental design even if other areas of the manuscript/grant could be better. As I’m writing all the strengths and weaknesses together, sometimes I realize that a nitpicky comment took over my brain while I was reading it, and in fact it is overall a really nice paper/proposal, which turns into a better score.

  6. C PP- Not every agency has the 12 page format.
    BugDoc- I’m thinking ‘that a nitpicky comment took over my brain while I was reading it’ something like this happened to me last week, and I’m living in regret right now.

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