Repost: Peer Review- Advocates and Detractors Redux

Aug 10 2015 Published by under Uncategorized

This post originally went up on the blog 20 Aug 2014.

A comment on a recent post from Grumble is a bit of key advice for those seeking funding from the NIH.

It's probably impossible to eliminate all Stock Critique bait from an application. But you need to come close, because if you don't, even a reviewer who likes everything else about your application is going to say to herself, "there's no way I can defend this in front of the committee because the other reviewers are going to bring up all these annoying flaws." So she won't even bother trying. She'll hold her fire and go all out to promote/defend the one application that hits on most cylinders and proposes something she's really excited about.

This is something that I present as an "advocates and detractors" heuristic to improving your grant writing, surely, but it applies to paper writing/revising and general career management as well. I first posted comments on Peer Review: Friends and Enemies in 2007 and reposted in 2009.

The heuristic is this. In situations of scientific evaluation, whether this be manuscript peer-review, grant application review, job application or the tenure decision, one is going to have a set of advocates in favor of one's case and detractors who are against. The usual caveats apply to such a strict polarization. Sometimes you will have no advocates, in which case you are sunk anyway so that case isn't worth discussing. The same reviewer can simultaneously express pro and con views but as we'll discuss this is just a special case.

The next bit in my original phrasing is what Grumble is getting at in the referenced comment.

Give your advocates what they need to go to bat for you.

This is the biggie. In all things you have to give the advocate something to work with. It does not have to be overwhelming evidence, just something. Let's face it, how many times are you really in position in science to overwhelm objections with the stupendous power of your argument and data to the point where the most confirmed critic cries "Uncle". Right. Never happens.

The point here is that you need not put together a perfect grant, nor need you "wait" until you have X, Y or Z bit of Preliminary Data lined up. You just have to come up with something that your advocates can work with. As Grumble was pointing out, if you give your advocate a grant filled with StockCritique bait then this advocate realizes it is a sunk cause and abandons it. Why fight with both hands and legs trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey?

Let's take some stock critiques as examples.

"Productivity". The goal here is not to somehow rush 8 first author papers into press. Not at all. Just give them one or two more papers, that's enough. Sometimes reiterating the difficulty of the model or the longitudinal nature of the study might be enough.

"Independence of untried PI with NonTenureTrackSoundin' title". Yes, you are still in the BigPIs lab, nothing to be done about that. But emphasize your role in supervising whole projects, running aspects of the program, etc. It doesn't have to be meticulously documented, just state it and show some sort of evidence. Like your string of first and second authorships on the papers from that part of the program.

"Not hypothesis driven". Sure, well sometimes we propose methodological experiments, sometimes the outcome is truly a matter of empirical description and sometimes the results will be useful no matter how it comes out so why bother with some bogus bet on a hypothesis? Because if you state one, this stock critique is de-fanged, it is much easier to argue the merits of a given hypothesis than it is the merits of the lack of a hypothesis.

Instead of railing against the dark of StockCriticism, light a tiny candle. I know. As a struggling newb it is really hard to trust the more-senior colleagues who insist that their experiences on various study sections has shown that reviewers often do go to bat for untried investigators. But....they do. Trust me.

There's a closely related reason to brush up your application to avoid as many obvious pitfalls as possible. Because it takes ammunition away from your detractors, which makes the advocates job easier.

Deny your detractors grist for their mill.

Should be simple, but isn't. Particularly when the critique is basically a reviewer trying to tell you to conduct the science the way s/he would if they were the PI. (An all to common and inappropriate approach in my view) If someone wants you to cut something minor out, for no apparent reason (like say the marginal cost of doing that particular experiment is low), just do it. Add that extra control condition. Respond to all of their critiques with something, even if it is not exactly what the reviewer is suggesting; again your ultimate audience is the advocate, not the detractor. Don't ignore anything major. This way, they can't say you "didn't respond to critique". They may not like the quality of the response you provide, but arguing about this is tougher in the face of your advocating reviewer.

This may actually be closest to the core of what Grumble was commenting on.

I made some other comments about the fact that a detractor can be converted to an advocate in the original post. The broader point is that an entire study section can be gradually converted. No joke that with enough applications from you, you can often turn the tide. Either because you have argued enough of them (different reviewers might be assigned over time to your many applications) into seeing science your way or because they just think you should be funded for something already. It happens. There is a "getting to know you" factor that comes into play. Guess what? The more credible apps you send to a study section, the more they get to know you.

Ok, there is a final bit for those of you who aren't even faculty yet. Yes, you. Things you do as a graduate student or as a postdoc will come in handy, or hurt you, when it comes time to apply for grants as faculty. This is why I say everyone needs to start thinking about the grant process early. This is why I say you need to start talking with NIH Program staff as a grad student or postdoc.

Plan ahead

Although the examples I use are from the grant review process, the application to paper review and job hunts are obvious with a little thought. This brings me to the use of this heuristic in advance to shape your choices.

Postdocs, for example, often feel they don't have to think about grant writing because they aren't allowed to at present, may never get that job and if they do they can deal with it later. This is an error. The advocate/detractor heuristic suggests that postdocs make choices to expend some effort in broad range of areas. It suggests that it is a bad idea to gamble on the BIG PAPER approach if this means that you are not going to publish anything else. An advocate on a job search committee can work much more easily with the dearth of Science papers than s/he can a dearth of any pubs whatsoever!

The heuristic suggests that going to the effort of teaching just one or two courses can pay off- you never know if you'll be seeking a primarily-teaching job after all. Nor when "some evidence of teaching ability" will be the difference between you and the next applicant for a job. Take on that series of time-depleting undergraduate interns in the lab so that you can later describe your supervisory roles in the laboratory.

This latter bit falls under the general category of managing your CV and what it will look like for future purposes.

Despite what we would like to be the case, despite what should be the case, despite what is still the case in some cozy corners of a biomedical science career....let us face some facts.

  • The essential currency for determining your worth and status as a scientist is your list of published, peer reviewed contributions to the scientific literature.
  • The argument over your qualities between advocates and detractors in your job search, promotions, grant review, etc is going to boil down to pseudo quantification of your CV at some point
  • Quantification means analyzing your first author / senior author /contributing author pub numbers. Determining the impact factor of the journals in which you publish. Examining the consistency of your output and looking for (bad) trends. Viewing the citation numbers for your papers.
  • You can argue to some extent for extenuating circumstances, the difficulty of the model, the bad PI, etc but it comes down to this: Nobody Cares.

My suggestion is, if you expect to have a career you had better have a good idea of what the standards are. So do the research. Do compare your CV with those of other scientists. What are the minimum criteria for getting a job / grant / promotion / tenure in your area? What are you going to do about it? What can you do about it?

This echos something Odyssey said on the Twitts today:


are true for your subfield stage as well as your University stage of performance.

5 responses so far

  • Ola says:

    Enough with the repost shittio Ted. If we didn't know better, we might begin to suspect you'd taken a 2 week vacation and were just reposting this crap on WordPress auto-pilot. We deserve at least a few holiday pix, c'mon!

  • Philapodia says:

    I like to gently remind the reviewer what the focus of the specific program announcement is in the specific aims if it's not an unsolicited R01. I've gotten hit with enough reviews where the reviewer was focusing on things other than what the program was asking for (reviewers asking why I wasn't focusing on Q when the PA was asking me to develop A-D) that it was getting a bit annoying, and I've found that if I politely remind them what the proposal was supposed to focus on then I actually got better reviews, since not every reviewer takes to time to read the particulars of the PAR/PAS/RFA in depth.

  • odyssey says:

    Huh. Apparently I make sense every now and then. Blind man on golf course and all that.

    Ola, Ted deserves a break. I'm sure being a social media leviathan is taxing.

  • E rook says:

    Phil - unless it's to an RFA or PAR, and the grant goes to a special emphasis panel, reviewers are not at all required to consider the significance of your proposed project within the context of the PA. They might think the PO who wrote the PA doesn't know what he's talking about and other issues are more important. If you're responding to a PA (other than the parent R01), you should check with members of the study section on what they think about Dr ProgramOfficer's ideas and IC's priorities. They might say the SS thinks it's great or it's a load of dung. Responding to the PA has currency at Program, and does very very little at SRG. It may just be very little real estate in the Significance that's ammo for the PO to bring to Council when your application gets to the payline (and that is solely a function of the SS), it's one bullet point they can recite to the Director (you made their job easy), explaining why the project is high priority for the institute. And should be clearly designated so it's easy for everyone to spot. The SS doesn't care about your target institute's priorities, they likely are considering (comparing) applications assigned to several/many institutes.

  • Philapodia says:

    @E Rook
    "unless it's to an RFA or PAR, and the grant goes to a special emphasis panel, reviewers are not at all required to consider the significance of your proposed project within the context of the PA."

    Agreed. I wouldn't do this with PA-13-302 or something similar, just PAR/PAS/RFAs with a specific focus. Since reviews are done before study section had they haven't had the SRO reiterating the goals of the solicitation too much, it's easy for reviewers to get into the mindset you mention and review as if it's a unsolicited R01. This way the reviewer is reminded that their job is to find projects that fit within a certain set of parameters, not what they think is more important. It's simply about helping the reviewer keep focus within the context of the program.

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