Things to See: NIH Cracks Down on Peer Review Breaches

Jul 18, 2019, 16:53 PM by Melodi Moore
Things you need to see
In his weekly blog, Mike Lauer, NIH Deputy Director for Extramural Research joined by Sally Amero, NIH Review Policy Officer and Extramural Research Integrity Liaison Officer, discussed Breaches of Peer Review Integrity and how the NIH will over the next few months address the issue.

Examples include:
  • A reviewer sending grant applications to their postdocs to write their critiques
  • Someone revealing that they reviewed a particular application
  • A reviewer disclosing how another reviewer scored an application
  • A principal investigator (PI) approaching a reviewer at a scientific conference to discuss her/his institution’s application in which s/he is designated as PI
The authors pointed out that in addition to calling into question the NIH peer review process, the breaches challenge the authority and efficacy of the PI and their institution.  This could ultimately lead to a loss in public trust, a loss of funding and even harm to those patients involved in clinical science.

Peer review integrity has been heightened because of a growing awareness of the scope and impact of breaches, especially those related to undue foreign influence.  NIH  Director responded to these concerns first in August 2018 with his Statement on Protecting the Integrity of U.S. Biomedical Research.  The Director's Statement (Statement) highlighted sharing of confidential information by peer reviewers with others, including in some instances with foreign entities, or otherwise attempting to inappropriately influence funding decisions.   

Since the release of the Statement more problematic issues have come to light.
  • Reviewers sharing applications with others without first obtaining permission from the NIH Scientific Review Officer (SRO)
  • Reviewers asking others to write reviews for them
  • PIs contacting or attempting to contact reviewers prior to study section meetings in attempts to influence the outcome of review
  • Reviewers and PIs sharing confidential information with each other
With some of these issues being so egregious, there is concern that PIs and their institutions may not be fully aware of the consequences.  These include:
  • notifying the individuals and institutions involved.
  • terminating the reviewer's or Council member's service in peer review.    
  • pursuing a referral for government-wide suspension or debarment.
  • referring the matter to the NIH Office of Management Assessment and possibly to the Office of Inspector General, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which could result in criminal penalties, fines,  imprisonment, and/or other action(s). 

The NIH has requested that the research community as a whole come together to take action and uphold integrity in peer review.  Maintaining integrity in NIH Peer Review: Responsibilities and Consequences (NOT-OD-18-115) explains what is expected from peer reviewers and what the consequences are in detail. 

Other relevant notices regarding this subject include: