Wednesday, 11 April 2012

Just one comment

 Posted by Jean Adams

The comments have arrived.

Or, to be more accurate, the comment, singular, has arrived.

After deciding to respond to a call for applications for research funding, assembling an appropriate teamdrafting the application, redrafting the application, filling in the accompanying form, redrafting the application again, and getting the whole thing through the university’s financial scrutiny, I finally submitted my application in early January.

And then there was radio silence.

For two months I heard nothing. I even sort of forgot about it.

Then a month ago, I got an email out of the blue telling me that the application would be sent for peer reviewed by “independent experts”. Which isn’t a bad thing. In fact, given that any application awarded funding has to be peer reviewed, being sent for peer review is definitely a better thing than not being sent for peer review. But the real gist of the email was that after peer review, I would be given an opportunity to respond to any particular questions that the reviewers had before the final decision on funding was made. There were clear instructions that there would be a “tight turnaround” from me being sent the questions to having to submit a response. When exactly this would occur was not specified.

This whole grant application thing is full of dramatic pauses, tight turnarounds and suspense.

But the waiting is now over. The comment has arrived. The turnaround is less than a week.

The comment runs along the lines of “this is an interesting idea and the methods look great, but I wonder if the sample size should be just a little bit bigger”. Which sounds like a fair comment given how much us researchers love arguing about what makes an appropriate sample size.

The thing is that my application had quite a long and detailed section on why the sample size chosen was just right. So now I find myself in a position of having to humbly, and politely, respond to the comment in a reasoned and careful way. When what I really want to do is scream: “Can’t you read? The sample size is justified in exceptional detail on page 13. You idiot.”
My Linus-neurotic streak isn't happy
But what is really bugging me is that there was just one comment. My neurotic streak doesn’t seem to like the idea of this at all. I know that the application will have been sent to more than one peer reviewer. So why did only one of them send a comment? It’s impossible that other reviewers thought the whole thing was perfect – academics just aren’t like that. Did the other reviewers feel that the application was so irredeemably bad that any response to comments I made wasn’t going to make any difference? What, exactly, is going on behind the scenes that I don’t know about?

I sent the comment to my co-applicants for their input, and because I hope they are less neurotic than me and might say something encouraging. The response:

“Just one comment? Is that a good sign?”

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