First large-scale survey on grant peer review published by Publons

The first large-scale survey on competitive research grant peer review, Grant Review in Focus, is published today by Publons, part of the Web of Science Group (a Clarivate Analytics company).

A grant is a financial award given by a governmental body, non-profit, or private enterprise for a beneficial project of some kind, and the peer review of grant funding is a fundamental part of the research life cycle. Grant Review in Focusbrings together the most extensive researcher survey on grant peer review ever conducted – with more than 4,500 respondents- and the full power of the Web of Science and InCites datasets. The researchers surveyed have reviewed, or applied for funds from over 800 unique funders, spread across 95 countries. A range of funders were also interviewed for qualitative insights.

Andrew Preston, Managing Director of Publons says: “Recently we have seen calls for dramatic changes in the way research funding is allocated, but the researchers and funders surveyed in this report strongly support the continued use of peer review to aid grant funding decisions.

“The use of experts continues to be viewed as a bulwark of quality decision-making in the funding process, ensuring continued trust and accountability. As the global research funding landscape shifts, it’s more important than ever for funders to understand best practice in grant peer review, and for researchers to be well-informed on the process.”

The report also finds that 89% of reviewers believe that greater recognition of grant peer review work would improve the process, with 81% believing that funders should take on this responsibility. They are dissatisfied with the transparency of the grant peer review process, with 60% believing that greater transparency of review identity would have a positive impact on the process. This is even higher than publication peer reviewers (40%).  Cash payments might seem an attractive driver of reviewer participation to many funders, but it does not seem to motivate reviewers (cash comes sixth for reviewers in a list of motivating incentives) as much as a desire for transparency and recognition.

Other findings include:

  • Peer review is consistently recognized as a bulwark of quality, with 78% of researchers agreeing it is the best way to allocate funds to the best research.
  • However, researchers also identify perceived failings of the peer review process, including unfair treatment of junior researchers and an aversity for innovative research.
  • Grant peer review is a time-intensive endeavour: funders spend up to six hours per application finding reviewers, and grant reviewers spend an average 10 days per year on reviews.
  • Finding peer reviewers is proving increasingly difficult for funders, with funders now having to invite at least three reviewers to secure one reviewer.
  • The reviewer workload is not evenly distributed, with just 4% of reviewers accounting for over 25% of all reviews undertaken.
  • Greater training for peer reviewers and explicit guidelines to reviewers are needed to ensure the quality and consistency of grant funding decisions.

As Sarah Collinge, Head of Research Funding Operations at the UK Medical Research Council (MRC) noted: “The role of the reviewer is extremely important to us and we ask a lot of them – we are effectively asking these individuals to predict the future.”

The report is a sequel to the Global State of Peer Review, and forms part of a series of insightful reports from Publons on the peer review process.