Maintaining integrity in peer review: new NIH guidelines

Do you know someone on the study section reviewing your NIH application? Do you want to give them a friendly call to update them on your current results? The NIH says DON’T! Because the research community is inherently small, investigators within the same field often have contact with the very people who may be reviewing their NIH applications. How then should confidentiality be maintained? What are the parameters? Last week, the NIH issued new guidelines for Applicant Responsibilities in Maintaining the Integrity of the NIH Peer Review that provide answers to these questions as well as possible consequences of unethical behavior.

In a recent guest posting on Sally Rockey’s Rock Talk blog, Richard Nakamura, Ph.D., director of the NIH Center for Scientific Review, wrote: “We understand that professional interactions need to continue while your application is undergoing peer review. However, as a PI, you cannot attempt to influence the outcome of the review…You cannot provide new information or data on your application directly to reviewers… You also cannot contact reviewers to get your scores or critiques.”

More specifically, the new guideline state that applicants:

  • Should not contact reviewers on the study section evaluating his or her application to request or provide information about the review or to otherwise attempt to influence the outcome. The only acceptable process for such communication is through the Scientific Review Officer (SRO) who is managing the study section.
  • Should not send information or data directly to a reviewer on the study section evaluating his or her application. The only acceptable processes for submitting post-submission materials are outlined in NOT-OD-10-115, NOT-OD-12-141, and related notices.
  • Should not attempt to access information related to the review of that application in secure NIH computer systems.

Maintaining the integrity of the scientific review process is perhaps more important than ever. Attempts to influence this process can erode public confidence, drain limited federal resources, and diminish the level of trust within the scientific community. As such, the new guidelines clearly outline the repercussions of engaging in this type of behavior:

The NIH may defer or withdraw an application if it determines that a fair review is not feasible because of a breach of these guidelines. Additional steps to ensure the integrity of the peer review process may be taken, including but not limited to:

  • Notifying or requesting information from the applicant institution or the individual’s institution
  • Pursuing a referral for government-wide suspension or debarment
  • Notifying the NIH Office of Management Assessment (OMA) with possible referral to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office of Inspector General (OIG)

Still in doubt about what constitutes a violation? Further details, including information about reviewer violations, can be found on the NIH’s updated website, “Integrity and Confidentiality in NIH Peer Review.”  In addition, the FAQs on Confidentiality in Peer Review provide scenarios to help you evaluate potential breaches.