Reviewing Grant Applications and Manuscripts as a Professional Development Strategy

July 21, 2020

Reviewing manuscripts and grants is a key component of academic science. Without peer review, published research lacks credibility. Without grant review panels, decisions around funding might be more arbitrary. The system relies on huge amounts of volunteer labor and expertise. This labor is often framed as altruistic work for the betterment of science, but you can also be strategic and leverage review work to directly benefit your career.

Reviewing a manuscript or a grant application is one of the best ways to strengthen your own scientific writing. Positive and negative examples are both valuable. A strong paper with a clear narrative can inspire you to develop a sharp outline for your own drafts. A jargon-filled manuscript can remind you to reexamine your own writing for clarity. Reading multiple grant applications can highlight ways to format sections and how to make a point succinctly and for optimal impact. A well-crafted trainee plan with clear milestones for skill development is a great rubric for your own grant applications, especially when juxtaposed against a less-organized example with a laundry list of tasks for trainees to complete. You are also more likely to notice and reflect on positive and negative aspects if you are actively critiquing rather than just consuming the writing.

Exposure to other scientists’ critiques is another benefit of reviewing. Reading other reviewers’ comments on a manuscript can help you craft a paper that will stand up to scrutiny and can give you insights into what a journal is interested in publishing. Sitting on grant panels will show you how specific aspects of a grant application are scored and what details successful applications include. Reading reviews from others allows you to determine whether your critique is in line with theirs. It’s ok if it isn’t! Expertise differs. Keep in mind that your reviews are also informing others — everyone is an expert, and everyone is still learning.

Networks matter. Editors who know your work may be enthusiastic to handle your manuscripts. It will be less intimidating to reach out to program officers for guidance if you’ve already sat on a grant panel together. Grant panels will also connect you with other researchers in your field, which can lead to new collaborations, seminar invitations or help with trainee recruitment.

OK, so reviewing manuscripts and grants is important. How do you become a reviewer and balance that work with your other responsibilities? As a faculty member, how do you foster your trainees’ development?

How Do I Become a Reviewer if I am a Trainee, Early Career Researcher or Not Well-Known?

  • Editors are always seeking reviewers; make it known that you are available. Try posting on Twitter or emailing editors at a journal in which you would like to publish.
  • If you are a trainee, request the opportunity to help review or do the initial review of a manuscript or grant application for your PI. They may have a few requests in their inbox that need attention. Once you have completed a review or 2, ask your PI if they think you are ready to be a reviewer. If so, ask them to nominate you as a reviewer rather than reviewing under their account.
  • Offer to read manuscript drafts for colleagues and give friendly, constructive criticism.
  • Reach out to program officers to volunteer for grant review panels.
  • Request copies of successful grants from program managers, your research office, your colleagues or contacts at other schools. While this is not an opportunity to provide a review, it can be very helpful for crafting your own applications.

How Do I Foster Manuscript and Grant-Reviewing Skills in My Trainees?

  • Offer your grants for review/comments; this is a great entry to grant reviewing for a trainee, as there is less jargon in the material.
  • Incorporate review practice into your courses. My graduate course includes a formal review of student-selected bioRxiv preprints, with full instructions and feedback. Important notes are then sent to the authors of the preprints.
  • Offer reviews of papers to trainees. Supervise their work at first and then directly suggest trainees as reviewers to editors.
  • Have senior students and postdocs lead the process of applying for grant funding or technical support related to their project. These should not be applications for large or foundational funding for your group. There are many opportunities that are well suited for a trainee to lead the application process.
  • Offer a grant-writing course within your graduate program and make it open for postdoctoral fellows to audit.

How Do I Balance This Work with All the Other Things on My Plate?

Reviewing is (usually) volunteer labor, and it is often undervalued by institutions/departments/promotion committees/hiring committees. It is important that reviewing does not overtake your other pursuits.

For the PI: set a limit for the number of reviews you will do per year, perhaps based on the number of reviews you request of your own work. Consider a metric such as “one article review a month or 3 reviews per submitted manuscript from my group, whichever is larger” to keep your review commitments reasonable. Additional review requests that come across your desk can be passed to interested trainees. When choosing which review requests to accept, be selective for those that offer learning opportunities for you. It can be tempting to say yes to everything when you are an early-career researcher. There will be more opportunities! Know that this is a process, and you will continue learning over the course of your career.

For the trainee: consider your workload and select opportunities wisely. The idea at this stage is to learn how to review through practice and exposure to other reviews. You don’t need to complicate this by also learning a new branch in your field or a new field altogether.

You have the opportunity to direct your energy. Strategic planning around grant and manuscript reviews is an important way to manage the demands on your time. Choosing carefully can mean you strengthen your writing skills and grant-writing acumen, all while contributing valuable service to the scientific community.

The Center for Scientific Review at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has launched an online portal through which scientific societies may recommend scientists to serve as NIH reviewers. This comes in response to an ongoing effort to refresh and expand the pool of well-qualified reviewers in every area of science. If you would like to participate, email us your name and CV.

Author: Laura Hug, Ph.D.

Laura Hug, Ph.D.
Dr. Hug is an Assistant Professor and Tier II Canada Research Chair in Environmental Microbiology in the Department of Biology at the University of Waterloo.