Frances Pearson, University of Lincoln, College of Social Science, Senior Research Officer

I’m writing the first Professional Services contribution to our College of Social Science Research Blog on the subject of Peer Review, given that we are participating in Peer Review Week 2019!

I joined the university in March 2019. When applying for my current role, I had to answer a question around the consequences of inaccuracies in applications for research funding and how I could help prevent such inaccuracies. Without any direct experience in administrating or managing the process of applying for research grant funding, I had to draw upon other experiences that I had which related to improving and sustaining high quality service delivery and outputs.

A significant part of my answer was peer review, without being aware of the existing process in place at the time. This was based upon my experience facilitating and conducting quarterly preparation for yearly service audits in a previous role. Delivering commissioned services meant that yearly audits were in place across a number of my services, and that it was in everyone’s best interests to be prepared for them. I managed this by a quarterly timetable of peer led service audits, which gave managers the chance to learn and develop based upon observations of best practice and highlighting areas for improvement within their colleague’s services.

Obviously these peer audits were not easy. They took time and could feel exposing and always resulted in action plans for service improvements. However, they meant that when the people responsible for funding our services came to audit our services each year, there were no nasty surprises and ultimately we continued to get funding and everyone kept their jobs!

What I am trying to get at is that the concept of peer review is one that is consistent with maintaining high quality in a service or project, and ultimately convincing other people that funding the work you do is worth them parting with their money. It is recognised and employed in a range of sectors and for good reason.

After 6 months at the University I’ve been party to many discussions around the peer review of grant applications. It is a process which can be complex and difficult, but the benefits highlighted by academic colleagues far seem to outweigh these difficulties.

The quality of a review is so important. Putting a grant application together is a difficult and time consuming process, before even getting to submitting and worrying about the outcome. Receiving a review which clearly benefits from time and consideration, evidenced through comprehensive and specific observations and ideas for development is one of the most valuable pieces of input a grant application and prospective PI can have. Being open to this feedback can reassure a PI that they are not alone in this process, that they can count on help and support from their colleagues.

Giving a peer review provides an opportunity to reflect upon the content of a grant application, to identify areas of good practice and to develop critical skills which can then be put to use writing grant applications. For those in the early stages of their career particularly, having the opportunity to read and comment upon an application for funding is a valuable learning tool.

At the other end of the process, once a research project is completed and outputs are being put forward for publication, they will be peer reviewed. It makes sense that at the very beginning of this journey, feedback would be sought in the same way; in part to ensure that the outputs had as solid a foundation as possible.

The process takes all of those involved out of their comfort zone; and it should. Walking a difficult path with your colleagues – and the opportunity to go back and re-trace your steps – before a funding decision is far more preferable than doing so alone; reflecting upon the steps you have taken after the decision to fund or not fund a proposal has been taken.