23

Being an experienced reviewer, I know that rejection can be frustrating, but also fruitful and a good learning experience. There are many kinds of reviews (good, bad, constructive, opinionated, short, missing the points, etc.) and as many kinds of responses (revision, rebuttal, abandonment, etc.). My question focuses on a specific case, a bit different from those considered here previously.

I received a notification about a grant proposal (I'd prefer not to say which agency I submitted to), already being evaluated as a fundable or excellent one, and quite critical to my career (really a lot of stuff depends on it, and one can see this from my CV). One review was plain positive (no criticism at all), and one was grossly negative. The two reviews had almost diametrically opposed conclusions. (There were only two!)

My problem: The negative review made several false claims (the evidence was easy to pinpoint) and put up a range of straw men (rather generic rejection arguments pinpointing irrelevant or inappropriate details). For example, they criticized the oldest of my papers I had cited and used this as evidence that I was insufficiently experienced in this field, but they overlooked the next seven papers I had also published in the same field (some in prestigious journals).

At this point, I suspect the reviewer was not knowledgeable of the topic or even had a certain conflicts of interest. In either case, they IMHO should have declined the review request.

However, the evaluation committee explained that they had to particularly take into account the negative review to inform their decision (without giving a reason), and interestingly, added further negative criticism.

What can I do about this notification? Should I contact the funding agency, write a rebuttal with the details, and request a third review and a revision? Should I think about legal action because there might be gross negligence or reputational damage at play? I don’t have any idea, because talking to funding agencies is like trying to fly to Mars. Re-submission, even if possible, will take another year because it will be treated like a new application. It is, at least, unclear whether there are other options.

2

6 Answers 6

44

Contacting the program manager

You can, and probably should, contact the program manager at the funding agency to point out the flaws in the negative review. This is an easy action to take, with little downside that I can see, other than the effort you would spend and the possible disappointment if it doesn't produce the outcome you want.

If you do contact the program manager, I recommend:

  • Focusing on factually false statements the reviewer made. Matters of fact are objectively verifiable, and a conscientious program manager would likely regard errors of fact as one of the only reasonable grounds for overruling a reviewer and soliciting a new review.

  • Do not waste your time disputing subjective matters. If the reviewer makes a subjective objection not based on a factual error that you perceive as a straw man attack or as misguided for some reason, I don't think you stand a chance of getting the proposal's rejection reconsidered based on such a flaw, however frustrating it might be for you. Subjective disagreements are too common, everyone who gets rejected thinks the subjective criticism against them is misguided, and at the end of the day, the standard response to someone objecting to such criticism is that, well, if the reviewer didn't understand what you were proposing then that means you just didn't explain it well enough — try harder next time.

  • If you can get your proposal and the review looked at by some colleagues with a good reputation, who agree with your views that the review contains falsehoods, and those colleagues are willing to write a letter supporting your objections (about factual matters!) and have you attach it to your letter of rebuttal, I think that might be helpful. It isn't guaranteed to help, but it won't hurt. If you do this, be sure to state clearly any conflicts of interest that those colleagues have which might influence their opinion (for example, that they are your collaborators or work in the same department as you).

The idea of filing a lawsuit

I can't say if this idea makes sense or not. Neither can anyone else here who isn't a lawyer (let alone a lawyer in your particular jurisdiction, which you haven't specified). Please don't listen to some of the nonsense I see in the comments, written by people with no legal expertise, about what constitutes defamation, gross negligence etc. If you want to know whether a lawsuit stands a chance of success, consult a lawyer.

On the academia side of things, I think it's true that a lawsuit will likely have effects on your reputation and affect the way you are looked at by some of your colleagues. On the other hand, the funding agency may also have reasons to fear for its own reputation from a lawsuit (or the threat of one, or even the threat of you going public with the incompetence being shown in the evaluation you got), so this argument cuts both ways. So, I don't think you've given us enough information to completely rule out the idea of a lawsuit.

That being said, I think you should consider whether your position that the reviewer and other people who played a role in your proposal's rejection are sabotaging your career (and should be held accountable for that, including using the legal system if needed) is really that reasonable. The funding agency has no responsibility to help you with your career. It is offering grants and has a process for evaluating proposals asking for funding, which you have voluntarily agreed to take part of. If your career is so dependent on a single grant that it will be irreparably harmed by this rejection, I think there's a strong argument to be made that this is the fault of your employer and the flawed system they have for evaluating academics. Or possibly — I hope this is not the case, but can't rule it out — it's your own fault for reaching a vulnerable stage of your career with a track record that is still kind of marginal and that necessitates a 100% success rate to keep your career going. (To be clear, I'm not saying this to be mean or to criticize you, but simply showing you what possible objections can be raised to the logic of your arguments. If I don't raise these arguments now, it's quite likely someone else will raise them later, so it's better for you to be prepared.)

Anyway, I'm sorry about your grant rejection. Good luck trying to get this situation fixed!

7
  • 1
    Thanks, Dan. This is a great answer! I totally support your comments and point of view. I am self-reflective enough to agree with the fallibility of my own argument. It was very helpful to raise this question here at SX to balance my view with the result that I still have the feeling that I'm on the right way with not accepting everything happening here in the academic world. Cheers.
    – mfg
    Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 10:18
  • 1
    Shouldn't one address straw men? Regardless of whether they're acting in bad faith or whether you just phrased it poorly, clarifying your intended meaning should eliminate the criticism in any case, and make for a stronger proposal. If it were me, I'd want to know about clear misunderstandings that influenced the decision (especially if given other reasons to distrust the reviewer). Although it may make sense to address these separately as an addendum, since a reviewer making objectively false statements is much more severe than them interpreting what you say differently from how you meant it.
    – NotThatGuy
    Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 10:53
  • 10
    When contacting, remember that the PM is not against you necessarily, so you are not against him. You are actually not trying to get the rejection reversed as such. You are trying to get a decision (even if it is rejection) for the right reasons. You are doing this in order to preserve the integrity of the review process. If the PM understands that you are being constructive, the response is likely to be more constructive as well. Even if the end result is “no change”, there will have been something positive about the whole exercise. Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 14:42
  • 4
    "get your proposal and the review looked at by some colleagues with a good reputation" Do this first, maybe you are wrong or the case is not so clear.
    – usr1234567
    Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 20:26
  • 2
    @Mario no need to explain, it's completely possible you have been doing more than anyone can reasonably ask for. Unfortunately it's also possible that that would not be enough to get the decision reversed. The world is full of injustices both small and large. I sympathize with your situation, but I think in terms of useful advice that we can offer, there isn't much more that can be said. Good luck!
    – Dan Romik
    Commented Feb 4, 2023 at 23:07
17

You can of course contact the program manager, but in all of my experience, not very much will come out of it.

I don't know whether you have been part of funding panels in the part and so have experienced the dynamics of people debating proposals. What often happens in cases such as yours is that the two reviewers of the proposal present their cases for whether they think the proposal should or should not be funded. If there are opposing opinions, the panel has to come to some kind of conclusion of what to recommend, and others often jump in to read all or parts of the proposal with an eye towards the specific points of criticism. They may not have the time or inclination to write a full review of the proposal, but they will be able to participate in the discussion and, in your case, they appear to have thought that the negative review needed to be given some weight, and the discussion found other points to critique as well that then ended up in the panel summary.

Program managers are typically reluctant to substitute their own opinion for that of the panel (for good reasons). As a consequence, it may be useful to the program manager to know if a reviewer was completely off topic, if only to know that they shouldn't invite that person again as a reviewer. But I would suspect that your chances of getting another shot with this proposal are rather slim.

Because this is so, my perspective on these things is to not dwell too much on the reviewer's failings -- because that is something I cannot change, and dwelling on things I cannot change do not help me move through life. Rather, I try to assume that it was my own fault that the reviewer did not get what I was trying to say, and use that as an opportunity to question how I presented what I wrote, and how I can improve in the future. In other words, I use these occasions as learning opportunities.

11
  • 7
    You can of course also complain about the reviewing system, but that too is unlikely going to change the program manager's decision. Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 18:42
  • 6
    As for false claims: What you're saying is that the reviewer made claims in bad faith, (rather than based on an inattentive reading of the proposal, or ignorance) and that the whole panel and the program manager went along with it. That's a strong claim, as is the claim that you believe the proposal could not possibly have been improved. Having seen more than a hundred proposals in my life, and hundreds of reviews, I will say that I have a hard time believing either. Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 18:45
  • 12
    @Mario IANAL, but what grounds would you sue someone on? Breach of contract? I see no contract. Libel/defamation? You'd have to prove they did it deliberately to harm you, and that the panel members were all in on it - almost impossible to do. You can't sue people just because their actions harmed you, they must have broken some legally enforceable duty to you. The real unfairness here is that your career rides on this single proposal, because, as you said, whether a proposal is funded or not is pretty much a lottery. Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 19:22
  • 8
    @Mario The thing is, gross negligence with regards what? Being negligent isn't an offence in and of itself. It's gross negligence leading to another offence. This reviewer isn't employed by the funding body (unless other fields are way better funded than my own), so no gross negligence can lead to them being fired. Defamation is a non-starter. Reviews by their nature are opinions, not stated as fact. You cannot be sued for giving your opinion on someone's work. Lastly, suppose you won. What happens to peer review then? Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 20:42
  • 6
    Just to continue the defamation vs opinions thread: If I write that "A's work is garbage and should never be funded, and this proposal is a waste of electrons," that is not defamatory. I am clearly giving my opinion. If I add, "also, I know that A does a tonne of hardcore drugs and also steals from his work", then it's defamatory. The former has to be an opinion, as someone's work cannot be terrible as a matter of immutable fact. The latter is a factual claim, is refutable, and is actionable. Commented Jan 31, 2023 at 20:46
11

I'm sorry this is happening to you. Unfortunately, you have no realistic recourse. If this is truly destructive of your career, the best use of your time is to figure out what you are going to do next in a different career. The race doesn't always go to the swift, the battle to the strong, nor the academic career to the most qualified.

I'm not saying you should accept the bad reviewer's behavior. But my experience is that your acceptance doesn't matter. Academia doesn't correct its mistakes for individuals. Even if it comes out next year that this reviewer has an email chain saying "I don't like Mario and I'm super dumb, so I'm going to shoot his proposal down," the best you will get is an opportunity to apply again. At that point the money will have been already distributed to the other applicants. In my experience, the best use of you time is to move on, unfortunately. Whatever that means for you.

I hope that you overestimate the negative effects this will have for your career.

7

As others have said, there is not much you can do against a dishonest reviewer, if they already have support of the grant panel. Consider resubmitting your idea to another funding agency if you can.

One thing though -- time may be of essence. Your reviewers may have left those unjustified comments because they misunderstood your work or did not make a proper effort to understand it. But it could also be that they actually understood the ideas, and purposefully decided to shoot it down, to delay your progress and to exploit the ideas themselves. Keep an eye for similar ideas to appear in preprints, grant applications, etc. Try to protect your ideas by publishing them at least as preprints, but under your name, before your reviewers publish them under theirs.

1
  • Thx. I'm very much hoping that what you describe (and what I've actually heard many times through the grapevine and could never really believe) won't come true.
    – mfg
    Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 10:25
4

I don't see the following relevant point being raised in either the question or the answers: the program probably has its rules and regulations regarding appeals (of course without details it's impossible to say).

These may be vague, and not very helpful to you. Harsh reality is that the peer-review process does not encourage second-guessing the peers reviewing a rejected proposal, as it's assuming their expertise. This is only mildly annoying with publications (just submit elsewhere) but less so when, say, applying for a grant from a national institution is virtually the only career route you can take, and a time-limited one at that (e.g., several European countries have such institutions and competitions for young scientists - and without a particular grant at this early stage, it can be challenging to pursue an academic career later on). In my particular country (details omitted as well), the appeal may only be raised against a formal failure in the due process, not against a disagreement with reviewers. The reviewers are bound to academic honesty by the grant authority, but it can be tricky to show that they were negligent, and that their rejection is not their honest expert opinion. And, frankly, I admit that when being a rejected party myself in the past, my judgement might have been sometimes clouded. But for what is worth, I sympathize with the dread of missing something you see as crucial for your career.

However, I do know people who successfully appealed such decisions. This is more about a yearly grant proposal cycles, not a one-off call for grants. The agencies I am aware of, all publish information about awarded grants, including success rate of appeals. This is not something on the top of their web pages, but this information is often available. If your particular grant proposal is a recurring one, this info can give you the overall feeling, whether an appeal is worth your time. You may also want to try to contact people that were successful with their appeals, but that depends on your networks (see below).

I personally appealed a rejection once, having a strong feeling that a reviewer was biased and not honest (personal favorite - the main objection was that the research I planned in that grant was not published yet). The appeal was overturned, as the reviews were deemed within bounds of an expert opinion (the publication thing - should I publish this research earlier, I would score more points for my academic achievements, therefore the reviewer was right to hold that against me). On the other hand, a colleague of mine was able to conclusively show that their reviewer did not read the whole proposal (raising points that were explicitly addressed beyond abstract and such), and their appeal was upheld.

I emphasize that I was able to acquaint myself with my colleague's case by sheer coincidence, as I would not contact a total stranger that went through with an appeal to ask them about that. So I'd advise to talk to your colleagues, who will know more about the context of your grant proposal - and perhaps know someone that can be more helpful in your specific case.

Finally, I strongly second @Dan Romik in that if you contemplate legal action, talk to a lawyer, better yet, one that has specific experience with academia in your country.

1
  • Thx, lemon314, for your insightful answer. I'm aware that I am not the only one having this problem. Yet, there are variants that may need more drastic action, perhaps not necessarily legal ones, but definitely an informed and well-argued appeal to the PM.
    – mfg
    Commented Feb 1, 2023 at 18:55
2

Aside from contacting the appropriate portfolio manager, as described in a previous (excellent!) answer, another action you can take is to examine the roster of reviewers, and if you're aware of any real conflicts in the reviewer pool, let the program officer know.

Note that being very expert in the area is not a conflict.

If a conflict is identified, then that would probably mean that particular reviewer would be disqualified from reviewing a resubmission. If the program manager knows for a fact that a person you deem to be in conflict trashed your application, there may be fixes available to them -- maybe even a re-review.

Keep in mind that you will likely not find out who reviewed your grant. Also, it may be the case that a person you think is in conflict may even have been your biggest proponent during the review process. My impression from being on Study Section is that reviewers tend to get very provincial about their subfields, and like to see money ending up in the area, even if that money doesn't go to them. (Note that this is clearly not a desirable approach for a reviewer to have! I'm just letting you know that I've seen people I think may have been behaving in that way)

Of course, the go-to option is a resubmission addressing the reviewer's points. Be diplomatic, but if you don't believe the points are valid, and believe you can convince a study section that you're right, then give it a go.

Lastly, while the situation comes up over and over again, having important parts of your career success hanging on the outcome of one grant is a very stressful situation (though, to some extent, this is simply the unpleasant nature of the beast). Many departments have informal or formal faculty mentorship arrangements that can really help investigators fine-tune their approaches to grantsmanship. If such a program exists for you, by all means, ping this situation off of a mentor.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .