How Reviewers Dissect NIH Grant Applications vs. Scientific Manuscripts

By Meg Bouvier, PhD, and Agnella Izzo Matic, PhD, CMPP

Most researchers make the mistake of writing a scientific manuscript and a grant application in exactly the same manner. That is a mistake because they are reviewed entirely differently.

Peer review panel of scientists discussing grant applications at the National Institutes of Health.
Peer Review in Progress at the NIH. Photo courtesy of the Center for Scientific Review.

Basics of NIH Grant Application Review

An NIH grant application is first read carefully by  ~3 assigned reviewers ahead of the study section meeting. Based on that initial review, the top half of applications will advance to the full study section meeting. At the meeting (primary review; score awarded), the assigned reviewers skim the application to jog their memory (they will have read a stack of applications.) The rest of the ~30 study section members only ever skim the application at the meeting – but the entire panel votes on the score. For those with promising scores who advance to the Council meeting (secondary review; funding decision made), POs present the application and the entire Council panel votes on a funding recommendation.

Basics of Scientific Manuscript Review

A scientific manuscript is read first by someone in the editorial office, who decides if it is an appropriate and impactful topic for their journal to publish. This person is often not reviewing the manuscript with a detailed scientific eye, and they may only look at the abstract. There may be a second person in the editorial office who reads the manuscript with a bit more scientific scrutiny. Then, if the manuscript passes the editorial office, it is off to multiple peer reviewers, who (should) perform a thorough review of the manuscript – from the top to the bottom, including the scientific rationale, background literature cited, methodology, data (does it check out?), and the commentary. These reviewers may request changes to the scientific manuscript and re-review the content to see if enough changes have been made to satisfy their original critiques. The peer reviewers make a recommendation to the editorial office for whether they should publish the paper and how novel and impactful the research is. The journal editor(s) ultimately make the Y/N decision on whether to publish.

NIH grant applications and scientific manuscripts are reviewed differently – The details

Scientific Manuscript ReviewNIH Grant Application Review
Can often get culled by editorial staff (not even Editor in Chief) after only having read abstracts and skimmed other contentInitial review by 3 assigned reviewers (likely) with expertise in topic
2-4 peer reviewers3 assigned reviewers perform initial review; then study section (~30 people) awards score to top half
Read thoroughlySkimmed at study section meeting
Read in its entiretyText is often skipped, especially by non-assigned reviewers
Read from beginning to end, usuallySkimmed out of order
A few individuals make recommendations, ultimately one editor usually makes decision to publish (or not)Entire study section votes on score, then entire Council panel votes on funding
Individual peer reviewers write commentsGroup discusses and votes, written comments should reflect discussion among group
Review timeframe is variable, 1 month to 6+ months (during COVID especially)Often takes ~ 9 months or more to get funding decision
Reviewer chooses time/place to sit quietly and readReviewers must attend review meetings at a set time/place
Introduction of manuscript should start broader and assume a lower level of prior knowledge in the topicReviewers (esp. assigned reviewers) may have more expertise in topic, so you can assume a higher level of prior knowledge in your writing
Reviewers may request revisionsIf not funded, you may revise and resubmit

Suggestions for writing toward different review processes

Scientific Manuscript WritingNIH Grant Application Writing
Abstract will be first piece read, must make strong and coherent impressionSpecific Aims is first piece read, must be strong and coherent
Build facts to a logical conclusionPlace the conclusion at the beginning, like a newspaper headline, because application is skimmed.
Use the headers suggested in the submission instructions, then write narrative below those headers.Choose headers that match scoring criteria. To facilitate skimming, use an outline. Justify it to the left margin. Line tables and figures up on the right margin so that they do not disrupt the outline.
Use the format in the journal instructions.Format judiciously (bold, underline, shading) to facilitate skimming. Create a formatting strategy and use it consistently.
Methods section maybe the least read section (relative to rest of paper), unless it’s being read by another researcher in your specific fieldDescription of proposed methods, including rigor, of paramount importance
Suggest you tackle writing each section in this order: Results, Methods, Discussion, IntroductionSuggest you begin with Specific Aims page, and only proceed with writing Research Strategy after thoroughly vetting with colleagues, mentors, POs, and platforms like RePORTER and CSR ART

Bottom line, you need to wear different thinking caps when you write NIH grant applications or scientific manuscripts because the readers are approaching them in unique ways.