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13. Careful reviewing of research proposals and manuscripts

13. Careful reviewing of research proposals and manuscripts

Reviewing research proposals and manuscripts is an important component of a researcher's work. This chapter discusses the principles and procedures in situations where conflicts of interest might arise when reviewing other researchers' grant proposals and manuscripts. A reviewer's verdicts on articles, research proposals and grant applications can have serious consequences. It is important, therefore, that these appraisals show high technical quality, respect and independence. The ownership of ideas and confidentiality should always be safeguarded.

Factual quality
In order to guarantee factual quality, observe the following guidelines.

  • If one feels that one does not, on the whole, possess the expertise required to make a sound judgement on a manuscript or proposal offered for review, it is better to refuse the request.
  • It is a good idea to begin a review with a concise summary of the research question, design and main findings. This shows that the reviewer has understood them properly.
  • Any criticism should be factually correct; when in doubt, one should either refrain from making a judgement or check with the experts or in the literature. In such cases, one can state that one is not an expert on certain matters and therefore cannot make a judgement.
  • Make any comments as specific as possible and clearly indicate what the authors should address or change.
  • It helps the authors if the comments are backed by references to the literature.
  • If the report or proposal sets out to test a hypothesis or principle that one does not agree with, be careful to use only scientific arguments.
  • Clearly distinguish between matters of taste and scientific inaccuracies.


  • Before submitting, the reviewer should read the review from the recipient's perspective.
  • The authors or researchers will find it more useful to receive positive feedback as well as negative criticism. Mention the strong points of the reported or proposed project.
  • If there are serious, fundamental shortcomings, there is not much point in criticizing details.
  • The tone of the review should not be scathing: even negative criticism can be phrased constructively. Remember that it is the reported work that is under review, not the researcher, so it is not appropriate to demolish him/her personally; that criticism can be phrased as a belief; and that criticism could be phrased as a question.
  • Suggestions for improvement will help the author to make a better job of his/her next manuscript or proposal.

 Ownership of ideas

  • It is only natural to acquire new ideas from the work one reviews, but it is wrong to take ideas from research proposals and present them as one's own.
  • It is fraudulent to give a negative verdict on the proposal so that the grant-giving body will reject it and you will have more chance of being the first to come up with an answer to the question.  


  • It is inappropriate to talk to outsiders about the content and/or quality of the reviewed work or about the authors. This is one reason why manuscripts submitted for review are sometimes presented anonymously. Even where the authors are anonymous one may occasionally have a good hunch as to their identity or background; however, their confidentiality should be respected.
  • Reviewers who need to contact the authors can do so through the organization requesting the review.

The worst case: suspicion of fraud

There may be a suspicion of fraud, for example if the same article by the same authors has been published elsewhere (dual publication) or if plagiarism is suspected. A reviewer may also have the impression that the reported data are incorrect. It is in the interest of scholarship to inform the editor of the journal or the scientific advisory board of the grant-giving body about such suspicions and to do so in a detailed manner.

Independence/conflict of interest

Participants in the research or the research team should turn down a request to review a manuscript reporting that research, as there is a conflict of interest. If the work is by a competing research team it is even more important to examine whether one's judgement is impartial. When reviewing grant applications, similar rules apply and reviewers are frequently requested to explicitly report on potential conflicts of interest to the granting organization (see Gedragscode belangenverstrengeling NWO ). In such cases, one would be disqualified from being either a reviewer or a member of a granting committee, specifically for applications where such conflict of interest applies. Examples are:

  • Prejudice (either positive or negative) towards the applicant; this includes family relationships, personal friendship, and previous personal or professional conflicts.
  • Being an applicant or co-applicant or being involved in the writing of a competing application in the same reviewing round.
  • Economic benefit following from the granting or rejection of an application.
  • Professional involvement with an applicant, for example being the applicant's supervisor or co-supervisor, being a collaborator on research projects and publications in the previous three years, or being a direct colleague or supervisor of the applicant within a department or larger organizational entity (research school, faculty).