Peer review service standards and code of practice - ESRC

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is committed to UK Research and Innovation’s (UKRI) principles of assessment and decision-making processes, and expects peer reviewers to abide by these as their code of practice.

These UKRI principles have been developed to protect the integrity of UKRI and reduce the risk of impropriety or any perception of impropriety in the conduct of peer review business and allocation of funds. The principles apply to all individuals involved in any way in the peer review of applications for funding.

Peer reviewers and panel members, like others who serve the public, are also expected to follow the seven principles of public life set out by the Committee on Standards in Public Life (the Nolan Committee).

Assessing applications is the primary purpose of reviews, but the UKRI commitment to implementing the 2008 concordat to support the career development of researchers implies that review feedback should assist applicants with learning how to develop strong research proposals. Learning support can be provided by reinforcing what applicants have done well and indicating how their application could be improved.

Reviewers are expected to act with integrity, reflecting the key principles of ethical reviewing outlined below.


Reviewers undertake to keep confidential all information which they acquire and generate in the course of conducting their reviews of research proposals. This information should be shared with others only in accordance with ESRC’s review procedure. Such information must be stored and disposed of securely. It must be used solely for the purposes of evaluating the application according to the spirit and the letter of the ESRC guidance.


Applicants should be treated with respect throughout the review process. Their application typically represents a considerable emotional and intellectual investment, and what they submit for consideration is likely to represent their best effort.

Reviewers are expected to assess the merits of the application, including the ability of the applicants to carry out the proposed programme of work, and make constructive criticisms where there are significant weaknesses.

However, they should never conflate judging the application with judging the applicants. Any comment which others might construe as personally defamatory is unacceptable.

An applicant’s proposal also represents their intellectual property, a product of their creativity and knowledge. Reviewers should respect this intellectual property, and avoid any plagiaristic and unacknowledged appropriation of the applicant’s ideas.


Reviewers should adopt a stance of impartiality, assessing the application solely on its own merits according to ESRC’s assessment criteria. They should not allow their own theoretical or methodological preferences to be a basis for their judgements. Reviewers are expected to be open to different approaches to investigation, new disciplinary thinking, and methodological novelty.

Reviewers should also provide a review which takes account of the strengths and weaknesses of the application. A review which only accentuates the positive aspects of an application is of limited use to ESRC in the assessment of the relative merits of applications.

Any conflict of interest that might threaten the impartiality of the review must be declared to ESRC officials at the earliest opportunity. It is prudent for reviewers to include under consideration anything that applicants might, in principle, perceive to threaten the impartiality of the review if they were ever to discover the identity of the reviewer.


The basis for the reviewer’s grading and judgement of the application against each assessment criterion, and for the overall grading and judgement of the application, should be made clear. Reviewers should indicate in the accompanying feedback what evidence (or lack of it) from the application, or from the reviewer’s wider expert knowledge, warrants the judgements that have been made.

Reviewers are expected to work to the highest standards of thoroughness and objectivity so that they are in a position to provide transparent judgements which are clearly warranted by such evidence or expert knowledge.

Developmental assistance

The primary duty of reviewers is to inform the assessment made by ESRC panel members. Yet reviewers also have a secondary duty to inform the applicants through their feedback in a way which is designed to maximise applicants’ potential for learning as researchers. Such feedback offers reinforcement of what applicants have done well, and offers pointers to how their application (and possibly future applications) could be improved.

As per the San Francisco Declaration on Research Assessment (DORA), reviewers should not use journal-based metrics (such as Journal Impact Factors) as a surrogate measure of the quality of individual research articles to assess an investigator’s contributions, or to make funding decisions.

The content of a paper is more important than publication metrics, or the identity of the journal it was published in, especially for early-stage investigators. Therefore, reviewers should not use Journal Impact Factor (or any hierarchy of journals), conference rankings and metrics such as the H-index or i10- index when assessing UKRI grants.

For the purposes of research assessment, reviewers should in addition to research publications consider the value and impact of all research outputs, including:

  • datasets
  • software
  • inventions
  • patents
  • preprints
  • other commercial activities

A broad range of impact measures should be considered including qualitative indicators of research impact, such as influence on policy and practice.


Reviewers who accept ESRC’s invitation to review a research proposal undertake to submit a review in which all components that they feel competent to address have been fully completed, within the requested timescale. Where unforeseen delays occur, reviewers are expected to inform ESRC at the earliest possible opportunity.

Conflicts of interest

Reviewers must avoid any conflicts between personal interests and the interests of UKRI. In the context of peer review of research proposals, a conflict of interest might arise as a result of direct, or indirect, personal, academic, financial or working relationships.

The acid test is whether a member of the public, knowing the facts of the situation, might reasonably think the judgement could be influenced by the potential conflict of interest.

Reviewers are required to make a statement in every completed report to declare whether they have any conflicts of interest. Failure to make this declaration will invalidate the report. Applicants for research grants should note that canvassing of members of the peer review panel will lead to disqualification.

To avoid reviewers’ conflicts of interest, ESRC’s selection of academic reviewers is subject to certain constraints. ESRC will not approach anyone with a current application under consideration in direct competition with the proposal under review, or from the same institution as any of the applicants.

On occasion, applicants may ask that certain individuals are not asked to review their proposals. Given these constraints on reviewer selection, reviewers must not show the proposal to others and ask them to review the proposal in the reviewer’s place.

For more detail, please see our conflicts of interest guidance for ESRC peer reviewers.

Equal opportunities

UKRI is committed to equal opportunities in all our activities. Reviewers should ensure that they avoid any bias in the assessment of proposals and final reports due to:

  • gender
  • disability
  • age
  • racial or ethnic origin
  • sexual orientation
  • religious belief

Comments by the reviewers must not contravene this policy. Defamatory or otherwise actionable comments should also be avoided.

Peer reviewers are also expected to familiarise themselves with the following guidance:

Last updated: 18 May 2023

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