Reasons for return of reviews - AHRC

The Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) takes great care to ensure that the reviews completed by members of its peer review college (PRC) are appropriate and of value to both the applicant and our moderating panels. For that reason, if AHRC feels that there are any elements of a review that do not meet its criteria, we will return them to the reviewer for amendment. The following is a list of common reasons why AHRC might return a review for amendment.

The comments and grades throughout a review contradict the overall grade given by the reviewer

For example, the wider content of the review indicates that a proposal is not of a fundable quality but a fundable overall grade is given. This can sometimes happen when a reviewer is taking the potential of a project into consideration rather than the content of the proposal as it stands. Reviewers should focus on the proposal as it stands and not as it might be if the opportunity to resubmit were available. Revisiting the grading descriptors when awarding a grade can help reviewers to ensure that their comments are consistent with the overall grade given.

The comments in a single section of the review don’t match the grade given for that section

For example, the content of an individual section indicates that there are serious concerns with that element of the proposal but the section is graded as good. This could be because the reviewer has not balanced their comments and only commented on their concerns without highlighting the positive elements of that area of the proposal. Balanced comments highlighting both strengths and weaknesses will help the panel to moderate the various reviews for a proposal and will give the principal investigator (PI) the necessary feedback to respond to reviews effectively.

A reviewer declares a low confidence level in their ability to provide a review

In asking reviewers to declare their confidence level, AHRC looks for an indication of a reviewer’s expertise within their field rather than their experience of writing peer reviews per se. If a reviewer doesn’t feel that they can confidently review a proposal because it falls outside or only minimally within their field of expertise, they will need to consider whether they should accept the review request at all. If reviewing a specific area of a multidisciplinary proposal, reviewers should consider their confidence level for the area of the proposal that falls within their field of expertise rather than the entire project. Under these circumstances it is perfectly acceptable to note within a review that the comments and grades relate to a specific area or discipline within the proposal.

The confidence levels given by the reviewer are inconsistent with their comments

For example, a reviewer clearly demonstrates an expert understanding of the proposal in question but marks themselves as having a low level of expertise. Most commonly this is because a reviewer is being modest or has limited experience of providing peer review for AHRC. It is worth remembering that AHRC aims to approach people with the requisite expertise when seeking peer review. If a reviewer is confident that the proposal falls within their field of expertise and that they can provide a review that meets our criteria then their declared confidence levels should reflect that.

The tone and language used by a reviewer is confrontational or emotive

AHRC’s moderating panels can only moderate if the peer reviews received are balanced and objective. It’s also worth remembering that the PI will have sight of the peer review received as part of the right to reply process and it may prove difficult for them to respond effectively if a reviewer’s tone or language is subjective or unbalanced.

The reviewer identifies themselves within their comments (inadvertently or overtly)

While the panel is made aware of the identity of our peer reviewers, applicants are not. Anonymity of peer review is important to ensure that members of the peer review college can express their views freely.

If the comments made are speculative or don’t relate to the content or context of the proposal

This can happen when a reviewer is looking at the potential of the project rather than the proposal as it stands. Reviewers should focus on the proposal in front of them and not as it could be if changes were to be made.

A reviewer’s comments are too brief

AHRC’s decision-making processes rely on expert peer review of the proposals submitted. In order to moderate a proposal effectively, our panels need to have a clear idea of the strengths and weaknesses of a proposal as identified by reviewers. Comments should be justified so that the moderating panel can make an informed decision based solely on the expert peer reviews received.

The reviewer has not addressed the areas expected for effective peer review and there is little or no critical examination of the proposal

AHRC’s moderating panels require expert peer review that identifies both strengths and weaknesses in order to moderate a proposal effectively. It is important that research questions, context and methodologies are considered when writing peer reviews for AHRC. Read the full guidance regarding peer review processes.

The reviewer makes specific comments regarding AHRC processes and policies

AHRC welcomes comments and feedback from members of the peer review college regarding our processes and policies. However, including this kind of commentary or feedback within a review is unhelpful to the applicant and panel as it has no bearing on the assessment of the proposal in question. Members of the peer review college should address any comments or feedback regarding our processes and policies to AHRC’s PRC team.

Last updated: 28 February 2022

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