The peer-review process, its merits and pitfalls are perennially popular topics among researchers, especially now when there are more papers and funding applications than ever before. Managing the process is becoming increasingly unwieldy for all concerned – the applicants, peer reviewers and the funding bodies. Many problems with the grant-review process are reported anecdotally but solid data have been lacking to support the feeling that, for example, referees are increasingly difficult to pin down, delays are all too often the norm, and variation between guidelines for similar grants are bewildering – until now.
This month in BMC Medicine, two articles focus on this topic and provide useful tangible data that will aid administrators of grant review in reviewing current processes.
In their Research article, Schroter and colleagues conducted a series of questionnaires and interviews to provide evidence that many major funders are experiencing a growing workload of biomedical proposals, and that the peer-review process required to support that workload is getting more difficult to manage. In addition, Schroter and colleagues report that many funders are generally supportive of the development of standardized requirements for the format and evaluation of biomedical grant applications.
In answer to this last point, a Debate article from Murray and colleagues suggests a potential solution to the heterogeneity of review application processing and the ways in which funded projects are assessed following implementation, with a focus on clinical trials of complex interventions. They describe a framework for evaluating complex interventions at the point of inception of a new trial, to improve study design. Not only will the trials be easier to design and review using this framework, but also easier to assess once implementation has begun, as the checkpoints for the reviewers and funders will be the same (or similar) across different projects. It is this kind of approach that Schroter et al call for in their survey of current practices in grant review.
Standardization of grant applications and their evaluation seem achievable aims, and it will be interesting to assess the take up of such frameworks across disciplines in biomedical research to see whether the goal of reducing the burden of grant review for authors, reviewers and funders takes another step forward. We hope the ideas contained in these two articles provide useful guidance in tackling this challenge.