The 9 types of grant reviewers

Artwork by Mark Palfreyman

We’ve already looked at the 9 types of peer reviewers, but you tend to encounter a slightly different breed when it comes grant reviews…

With papers, anything less than a “reject” decision keeps you in the game – but with grants, anything less than an “accept” boots you out. It’s this all-or-nothing aspect that distinguishes grant reviewing from paper reviewing, and consequently the reviewer archetypes are slightly different. Similar types are often found to some extent reviewing revisions of papers, where a similar all-or-nothing outcome can be at stake.
1. Samaritan
“The applicant is a promising young scientist who deserves to be given a chance”
(+) Gives a considered, favourable, and sympathetic review.
(-) May come across as uncritical.
People are usually pleasantly surprised that altruists are more common in real life than film and TV would suggest, and Samaritans are (unexpectedly perhaps) probably the most prevalent breed of grant reviewer. They’re sympathetic, supportive (especially of young scientists), and generally in favour of anything that’s feasible and well thought-through. The drawback is that these exact qualities can somehow make them seem uncritical (though obviously not to the same extent as the Tribalist). Due to their fastidious approach, they often take longer to provide a response, and may be disfavoured by review panels as a result.

2. Tribalist
“This is ground-breaking science that needs immediate funding”
(+) Extremely supportive if you’re in their faction.
(-) Produces obviously biased evaluations.
Not as grand as the Authority but often similar in terms of their effects, the Tribalist’s sole aim is the advancement of the scientific agenda put forward by some faction or clique of which they are a devoted member. This can extend to penalising any proposals or ideas coming from out-group members. If you have the right lineage and you already follow their arcane rules for the presentation of results, then you’re guaranteed an indecently enthusiastic evaluation. Extreme members of the tribe can become outright Worshippers or Idolisers, who consider anything fitting their beliefs to be seminal, paradigm-changing and Nobel-worthy. The downside of all this purple prose and critical ejaculate is that it’s obvious their evaluation was not exactly dispassionate.

3. Arsehole
“The experiments proposed here cannot possibly work”
(+) Thins the competition
(-) Kills and demeans your work
Call them the Serial Killer, call them the Dismissive, call them anything you like (and you should feel free to), but what they are is the Arsehole. They are venom, they are spite, they are wickedness, they are blight, they are contempt, and they are the worst type you can encounter, regardless of their mood. Utterly unempathetic, utterly merciless, and utterly insensitive to context, they kill whatever passes under their eye. Tend to specialise in catch-all criticism from which there’s no escape, with things either being too focused or too ambitious, but never acceptable regardless of what’s proposed. Rarely offer an actual justification for their withering assessment besides shitting all over the quality of the preliminary data, the hypotheses, and the independence or professional standing of the applicant.

4. Authority
“The applicant demonstrates little grasp of the field”
(+) Loves you if you’ve cited their work
(-) Overtly hostile if you haven’t cited their work
Unlike Arseholes, the Authority’s criticism – which can be equally withering – is reserved for those who have not kissed their ring. Supercilious to the point of pomposity, they will magnanimously deign to support those who cite their papers but become patronising and acerbic when not given the awe and respect they feel they deserve. Prone to explaining perceived errors as if to a child with lines like: “If only the applicant had read the paper by [me] they would have avoided this simple error.”

5. Tech-fetishist
“The inclusion of microfluidics would considerably strengthen the workplan”
(+) Enthusiastic approval if you press their buttons
(-) Requests are sometimes exotic and esoteric
The tech-fetishist gets aroused by one thing only: hot new techniques. Whether it’s microfluidics, or cryoEM, or automated microscopy, or high-powered mathematical modelling, as long as it’s newish, sophisticated, hard to understand, and generally expensive, then they will get themselves more excited than a dog with a squeaky toy. Addicted to jargon, they’ll sing your praises if you indulge their fantasies but can unfortunately also have a negative effect by criticising perfectly feasible proposals that use older methodologies. Their requests are not always easily accommodated either, due to their sweaty love of designer gear that’s not always widely available.

6. Chauvinist
“This is clearly a top-notch proposal from a future leader in the field”
(+) Good news if you’re a white male
(-) Bad news if you’re not a white male
Bias is rife in science. Sometimes it’s conscious, sometimes it’s unconscious, but whatever its root causes it tends to result in a consistent tipping of the scales in favour of white men – invariably at the expense of women, people of colour, and minorities. Chauvinists are generally products of privilege, and are often loud and enthusiastic advocates of supposedly meritocratic processes that result in people like them getting all the money, all the promotions, and all the benefits. Their influence is subtle but pernicious, and as they’re often operating on the basis of unconscious beliefs they can be angry and hostile when challenged. Rarely stricken by self-doubt, and usually embedded in positions of influence.

7. False friend
“The applicant proposes a number of very interesting experiments”
(+) Their evaluation doesn’t make you feel worthless
(-) Their evaluation is much worse than it sounds
The False Friend is a pseudo-sympathiser – someone who sounds friendly and generally supportive in their evaluation text but actually grades the work more harshly than their words lead you to expect. Will often start their evaluations sounding enthusiastic and helpful, but then there’ll be some quietly lethal line that begins “I think though that the applicant needs to consider…” which goes on to damn the proposal with faint praise. Tend to think that the only way to be sure of something is to do the proposed work in their own organism of choice or using their technique of choice. Almost everyone has had the sensation of looking at review reports after a rejection and thinking “But if that’s their assessment, then why wasn’t it judged fundable?” A False Friend is often the explanation

8. Torturer
“I feel some electron microscopy is essential to address the main question here”
(+) Requests are usually easily addressed
(-) Never relents until requests are accommodated
Whatever you have offered, the Torturer will always want a little more, and they won’t stop until they get it. A stickler for details, they are marked out by their utter inability to compromise, and there is usually one thing that really, really grinds their gears, which they’ll fixate on almost to the exclusion of everything else. Like Dr Seuss’ the Zax, they will dig their heels in and not shift until they get their way, and are often as exhausting for other reviewers as they are for applicants. Similar to the Mercy Killer, this is a type often encountered in paper revision reviews, where they can invariably trigger repeated rounds of resubmission thanks to their refusal to budge over minutiae and relentless requests for incremental improvements…

9. Mercy killer
“Regrettably, it is simply not feasible to complete the necessary changes within a reasonable timeframe”
(+) Brings a difficult situation to an end.
(-) The ending is a rejection.
Sometimes peer review is a pleasure. Often it’s a chore. And occasionally, it’s a slog. There are times when authors know that they’re doomed, or have lost confidence in the project themselves, but aren’t going to quit out of sheer blind hope that maybe they’ll be casino-jackpot-lucky; the reviewers know the work isn’t really up to scratch, don’t think it should be funded, but can’t bring themselves to say so. Or sometimes there’s a genuine scientific flaw that the authors have missed which makes the whole project unrealistic. Whatever the causes, it’s at this point that the Mercy Killer steps in. They’re the empathetic but still rigorous types who are resolute enough to say what everyone is thinking, and they will gently but firmly press the “reject” button. More commonly encountered with paper revisions than with grants, fortunately.

Did we overlook any types? Leave a comment to let us know if so.

If you like this, then have a look at our other 9 types postings:
The 9 types of peer reviewers
The 9 types of scientific authors
Many thanks to @joantran for suggesting this posting.
This posting was co-authored with Mark Palfreyman, with input from Graham Warren.
As with the other “9 types” postings, this owes an enormous debt to the Dent cartoons from NIH, which initiated the 9 types concept.

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