Review Matters

Ensuring Integrity & Impartiality in Peer Review


March 25, 2019

It is critical for the NIH and for CSR to ensure the integrity and impartiality of the peer review process. Service on peer review is neither a right nor a requirement. As an agency, we can exercise discretion on who we invite to serve, or continue to serve, on a peer review committee. We are not arbitrary in our actions, but there are many reasons we may choose not to include specific individuals on our peer review committees. For example, some individuals may have too many conflicts of interest, or too much review service, resulting in undue influence over an area of science. We may remove or not invite back a reviewer who has a pattern of submitting reviews late, requiring applications to be rereviewed. And we are particularly concerned when evidence arises that a peer reviewer may have breached confidentiality of the review process. These are just a few examples, but there are many more.

The decision to exclude individuals from participating in peer review is not meant to be punitive, or to imply guilt on the part of the accused. It is intended simply to protect the integrity of our scientific review process.

You may also have heard about another troubling issue that we are wrestling with at NIH. The recent report issued by the National Academies documented that sexual harassment is a significant and pervasive problem in the sciences. Last month, the NIH Director issued a statement to update the community about NIH’s efforts in this area. So how does this issue intersect with peer review? Let me explain. Peer review is a process involving humans, not automatons. A reviewer’s circumstances may influence the process. Let’s say, for example, that a reviewer has been accused of sexual harassment against female postdocs in his lab, and an investigation later determines that he is innocent. In the interim, he attends a peer review meeting and evaluates NRSA postdoctoral applications from male and female principal investigators. In an effort to appear unbiased, he may be wary of giving unfavorable scores to the applications from female principal investigators even though the science proposed deserves an unfavorable score. Such an action would compromise the peer review process.

Especially over the past year, NIH has received allegations of sexual harassment against specific people who were serving as reviewers, or seeking to become reviewers, at the time. Allegations may come to us from victims or observers, or from institutions that may already be investigating and pursuing administrative actions. We take this information very seriously. Depending on the specific circumstances, and out of an abundance of caution to protect the impartiality of the peer review process, we will exercise our discretion to exclude these individuals from serving on peer review committees until our concerns have been resolved.

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9 Comments on "Ensuring Integrity & Impartiality in Peer Review"

  1. Anonymous says:

    How about double blind review? That would remove many biases.

    • anonymous says:

      Double blind reviews will not work as background information and preliminary data will reveal the applicant. Background information and preliminary data are important to know if the applicant is capable in doing the study and so it cannot be removed.
      Importantly, reviewers could identify the applicants when CSR gave already reviewed applications for re-review in which the possible identifications were removed. The actual problem is that biased reviewers do not read the grants, give biased comments and have very negative attitude.

  2. Anonymous2 says:

    As a male automaton (aka ECR) who works in a female-dominated field, I think many innocent men are being a bit careful to put on a pro-feminist face to ensure that they aren’t going to get swept in this gender bias #metoo business. I would like to think that I am not biased because I do believe we should promote good scientists regardless of their sex/gender/race etc, but as implicit association tests show, we often have subconscious biases that may contradict our conscious beliefs. I believe there have even been studies showing that women are also guilty of the same biases against female applicants as their male colleagues.

    This policy does make sense to me but I wonder if it wouldn’t also be reasonable to exclude the accuser because the processes around their sexual harassment complaint may induce bias. Just as an accused man, even one falsely accused, should be excluded because of potential bias that might arise while he is stressed by the investigation procedure, an accuser should be excluded because of potential bias that might arise while she is participating in stressful investigation procedures, and likely encountering difficult and unfair power structures.

    • admin says:

      We appreciate your comments. While every case is different, victims of sexual harassment tend to be more junior scientists. Junior scientists are less likely to be serving on a review panel.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I was sexually harassed and encountered gender bias in undergraduate, graduate school, postdoctoral training, and as a scientist in both academia and the private sector. I worked in several different departments and ALL of them had men in supervisory positions. Most exhibited bias but there were other forms of harassment. Bullying, favoritism, racism, or overt sexual advances varied in each department. The ‘old boy network’ still exists. Many of the women and men who were the least competent were promoted as a reward for sexual favors. Nepotism, favoritism and disrespect were rampant. Very disappointing and continually discouraging to those of us who refused to use their gender to ‘get ahead’.

  4. Sandra Hewett says:

    So I am pretty speechless. Does one really believe that alleged sexual harasser would make sure that he provides better scores for NIH to woman in case anyone chooses to check. The policy is sound. The explanation is poor. Sexual harassment and objectification of woman boils down to lack of respect. That certainly would lead to bias, implicit or otherwise, in the review process.

    • admin says:

      The example was meant to address concerns about public accusations that ultimately turn out to be unfounded. It was not meant to address the obvious negative impacts of sexual harassment and the resulting effects on the review process.

  5. throw away says:

    This is a great step. But would NIH consider the same action for individuals who are either alledged bullies and/or harassers?

    • admin says:

      We are concerned about any pattern of behavior that has the potential to affect the integrity of the review process. We encourage investigators and reviewers with concerns to reach out to their SRO, the CSR Review Integrity Officer (, or the NIH Review Policy Officer (

Comments are closed.