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Why peer review needs you – and you need peer review

Engaging in peer review of grant applications means helping ensure public money is spent as wisely as possible. The decision-making process is difficult, but with over 20 years of peer review experience Eleanor Riley, Deputy Chair of the MRC Infections and Immunity Board and Professor of Infectious Disease Immunology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM), explains what makes a good review and how everybody gains if everybody takes part.

Eleanor Riley. Credit: Anne Koerber, LSHTM

Eleanor Riley. Credit: Anne Koerber, LSHTM

To be sure we fund important research questions, high-quality research and well-designed studies we need to ask for the opinions of people who best understand that research area. It is a long, difficult and sometimes imperfect process but it is the only way to ensure we allocate finite funds to the very best projects.

The MRC peer review process relies on receiving a sufficient number of reviewer comments. The office approaches the best, most relevant experts first, but if they don’t respond, the net has to be widened. Sometimes the office has to approach as many as 15 people to receive only three or four reviews. That situation is not ideal – it’s a huge amount of work, and it could mean that the application is not reviewed by the most appropriate people.

Committees, boards and panels bring together people with a wealth of expertise. But no board can comprise experts on all topics. So we need to be absolutely sure that those difficult decisions are based on the best possible evidence, and that’s where peer review comes in.

As a peer reviewer, you’re not expected to spend huge amounts of time digging into the literature and checking everything the applicant says they’re going to do. You’re being asked for your opinion and the proposal should contain everything you need to be able to judge it.

Reviews don’t need to be long but the MRC board or panel will rely on them to make judgements. So if you pick up a problem, ensure you describe the nature of the problem. If it’s a really good grant and you can’t find anything wrong, tell them. And if you think it’s an important question, explain why.

I think the more grants you read, the better your own grants become. For early career researchers, reviewing grants is a useful skill to develop in terms of rapidly assimilating data and coming to a conclusion. Plus, once you’ve seen a good and a bad one, it becomes a lot easier to write your own.

I would say it’s rare, whether your grant is funded or not, not to learn something from the reviewers comments. Even if your grant gets funded the comments can be really helpful in making it better and making sure you don’t make mistakes on the way. For example, experienced peer reviewers can point you to more appropriate methods or alert you to some likely pitfalls.

Reviewing a grant doesn’t take a large amount of time, and if everybody plays their part it means everybody gets more useful reviews and the opportunity to improve.

Engage with the process so you can see it working. By observing an MRC board meeting you see how reviews are used to enable the board to come to a decision. People usually leave with much greater confidence in the system than they had before.

I used to complain and criticise grant funding decisions. Now I’ve sat on boards and committees I don’t complain anymore because I understand how difficult the process is. I think if people genuinely want the best science to be funded they need to recognise that they have an important role to play.

As told to Isabel Baker

Eleanor speaks in her own capacity and her views do not necessarily reflect those of the MRC.

Hear more from Eleanor in our MRC talks podcast.

Guidance and a video about the MRC peer review process is available at: www.mrc.ac.uk/peer-review

If you are an MRC-funded early career researcher, with less than two years left of MRC grant funding, you are eligible to observe a board meeting, subject to availability. If you are interested please contact peer.review@headoffice.mrc.ac.uk

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