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Case Two: Getting a Fair Shake?

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RCR Casebook: Peer Review

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Gail is an Associate Professor who has published extensively and rightly considers herself one of the leading experts in her field. She knows the drill for developing and submitting a proposal for funding. Her most recent proposal is based on considerable prior research that she and colleagues have conducted, and it employs methodology that she knows will produce valid findings.

Gail is anxious about her proposal being reviewed and funded. Prior to submitting, she ran it by a network of capable colleagues with whom she works collaboratively to develop and critique ideas. They all share the same dedication to medical research with important long-term implications for public health, as well as short-term implications for federal policies and funding.

When Gail finally receives the funder’s evaluation, she is happy to see that she received a high score on her proposal. However, the score is below the cut-off point at which it can be funded. Gail turns to see what objections and concerns the reviewers had with her proposal. She plans to revise and resubmit for the next funding cycle.

Gail is flabbergasted to read what the reviewers said. In their feedback, they find that her methods are “flawed”. And they suggest changes to the study design that Gail is certain would significantly compromise the quality of the science as well as its impact on the development of her field. They clearly did not understand her approach, which is highly novel.

Gail is considering re-submitting the proposal employing the reviewers’ suggested methodology, then actually doing the study as she proposed it in the first place, explaining that “pilot testing” indicated that her methodology would work best.

However, Gail worries that this is deceptive. And who knows if the same reviewers would be evaluating her resubmission? Perhaps she is better off proposing her original “flawed” methodology—with a direct response to reviewers—in hopes that she will receive new reviewers or that her reviewers will be unusually open minded. Gail has two months before the revised proposal is due. She feels caught between a rock and a hard place.

What should Gail do?

Discussion Questions for Facilitator

  • How might Gail respond to the reviewers’ scientific comments? How might she incorporate the reviewers’ methodological suggestions into her next submission?
  • What are Gail’s options? What are the pros and cons of each?
  • What might be some useful things she could do to prepare for the resubmission?
  • Do you think there are problems with our current peer review system? How would you improve the system? *
  • Have you ever had something similar happen to you? How did you deal with it, and what lessons did you learn?