Why are grant applications confidential?

Photo of a large bag labeled 'Confidential Paper for shredding & recycling'.

Confidential Paper for shredding & recycling, by Dan Brickley on Flickr.

One of the first rules that I learnt when I started as a research whisperer was that grant applications are confidential documents. We should never talk about an application, other than with the applicants.

I’ve seen that rule applied with different levels of stringency at different times.

Think about these questions for a moment:

  • Should the very fact that someone is drafting an application be treated as confidential information?
  • Should you be able to talk to other people in the research office about a draft application? How widely?
  • Should you be able to send an application for internal review? Do you need to check with the applicant first?
  • Is an application still confidential after the grants have been announced? Can we put successful grant applications into a library, so that others can learn from great examples?
  • If two applicants are working on similar topics, and would gain from working together, can I introduce them to one another? How?

These questions define the borders of confidentiality. Most research offices would have different answers to some or all of these questions.

Lately, I’ve been wondering if confidentiality is the best way to go. Perhaps we have more to gain from broadcasting research ideas widely, than from keeping them close.

Imagine if grant applications were public, rather than private.

That is what happens, in effect, with a crowdfunding campaign. You can’t crowdfund in private. By definition, you have to publish your idea to raise interest in it. This has some interesting consequences:

  • End users (the people you are actually trying to help) can find your research, and can provide support for the idea.
  • Colleagues can find it, and can express interest in working with you.
  • Stakeholders (e.g. industry or government) can find it, and can fund it themselves.

I’ve spoken to people who have had all of these things happen to them during their crowdfunding campaigns. Christopher Moore, for example, was invited to speak at a panel by the Human Rights Commission because of his crowdfunding campaign. He counted that as a success, even though his fundraising campaign didn’t raise the funds that he was looking for.

Fear of being gazumped

In the main, the idea of keeping a grant application confidential comes from the fear of being gazumped. That is, that someone else will steal your idea and get the research funded, done and published before you can. This is similar to a debate in the publishing industry. As publishers applied digital rights management (anti-theft) technologies to music and books, Tim O’Reilly pointed out that it wasn’t piracy that most authors and musicians should be worried about, it was obscurity. His argument was that, by making the music and writing openly available, there was a much bigger chance that new audiences would find it. The same is true with open publishing – most data I’ve seen shows that research that is published openly gains more citations.

While I’ve see commentators talk about fears of idea theft and issues around ownership of intellectual property, I haven’t heard those fears from the crowdfunders I’ve spoken to. In part, this is because the people that I’m talking to aren’t undertaking cutting-edge research that is going to earn a million dollars through commercialisation. I understand that there are some areas where commercial espionage is a real issue, and there is a serious threat of ideas being stolen. However, that is a very small part of the research that we generally deal with.

For the most part, I think that researchers may have more to gain by exposing their early ideas than they have to lose. There are some potential advantages to this approach, as well as some potential dangers.

It may help to make an idea stronger, or it may help to make it even less clear. In general, open review helps to eliminate weaknesses from ideas. However, sometimes we can ‘help people to death’. That is, we can provide so much advice that people don’t know what to do. Rather than clarifying the idea, the author tries to incorporate all advice, and the idea just gets muddier.

It may help to gain supporters for an idea, or it may gain detractors. In the best of worlds, exposing an idea to the world can help to build a community of support around it, or can see it adopted by an existing community. This is particularly true for research around rare diseases, where it may be difficult to find participants for a clinical trail. However, many research ideas sit within highly contested space, where they may be greeted with a hostile reception, not a receptive one. That is no fun for anybody.

It may be noticed by your colleagues, who may want to help, or may want to steal your idea. One of the main audiences for research ideas is other researchers. These are the people who are probably most interested in what you’re doing. They may be able to introduce you to others who are doing similar work. They may be able to alert you to foundational work that you haven’t referenced. They may offer to combine their work with yours. Or they may steal your idea and make it their own. You need to balance the risk of advantage versus the risk of theft.

It may gain unexpected avenues of funding  or that colleague who stole it may get it funded when you can’t. By exposing your grant application to more than six people, you raise the chances that interested parties will approach you with funding offers, or other offers of assistance. I’ve spoken to multiple crowdfunders who have been pleasantly surprised when industry or other stakeholders stepped forward and wanted to fund their work. It doesn’t always happen, but it does happen enough to appear as a thread in my interviews. On the other hand, there would be no joy in seeing your idea stolen and funded.

The big reveal

More than anything else, you may gain an audience for your work. At the moment, research works something like the magician’s ‘big reveal’. Everything is confidential during development and while the research is being done, then – ta da! – all is revealed when the research is published.

The big reveal makes research seem like magic to the general public. They don’t see any of the hard work, any of the setbacks, or the long, slow crawl towards results. They also don’t get to see how incremental research is. All they see is a media story based on a press release that talks about the outcome. Ta da!

The problem with this approach is that you don’t get to carry people along with you. The very people that you are trying to help often don’t know what you are doing. When you do reveal your work, they aren’t interested, as they don’t understand where it has come from. They weren’t there for the journey.

Recently, I’ve started changing how I do things with my applicants. Rather than having them all work alone, I’ve encouraged a community of practice around grant development. I can’t do that if they don’t know who one another are. I’m finding that people learn as much from one another as they do from anything that I tell them. I still have some applicants who don’t want to play with others, and I respect their wishes. But, in general, I try to build a group of applicants, rather than work with a large number of individuals.

I’ve also started suggesting that applicants write a story for The Conversation when they submit their application, to try to expose it to the public. You can see a different version of this idea in the Research Ideas and Outcomes (RIO) journal. This is a journal where you can publish at any stage of the research cycle, including publishing your grant application.

This is a powerful idea, and I’m interested in seeing where it goes. I’ve spoken to a professor who thought that this was a crazy idea. I don’t think that it is so crazy – just a different way of thinking about things.

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About Jonathan O'Donnell
Jonathan O'Donnell helps people get funding for their research. To be specific, he helps the people in the College of Design and Social Context at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia. He loves his job. One day a week he does his own research into privacy, identity and transactions on the Internet. He likes that day, too, even when it makes his brain hurt. At the moment, he is spending a bunch of time looking at crowdfunding for research. In fact, he has enrolled in a Masters by Research to do just that. He'll let you know how it goes.

4 Responses to Why are grant applications confidential?

  1. lindawilliams2012 says:

    Hi Jonathan

    I have found you to be a fantastic support in applying for grants and I think you are very good at your job, so I am completely taken aback by some of the points you raise here. You and your colleagues are there to SUPPORT research grant applicants, not to line them up and tell them what to do (other than, of course, meeting the grant specifications). You have always seemed to me to be a person who gets this point, so I am really puzzled by some of these questions.

    Any applicant with half a brain knows they are up for stringent external peer review anyway, and will ask for help when they need it as a matter of self-interest.

    Your question 3 in particular could only come from someone who works in an immature research culture.

    Should you inform a grant applicant that you are sending their application for internal review?

    Are you kidding ?

    The last time I looked we hadn’t quite got to the stage of university managerialism taking on the qualities of Kafka’s castle, but there are plenty of non-research active bureaucrats out there who would move us in that direction if they could.

    I regularly act as a an anonymous peer-reviewer for several journals etc. And I would be happy to help someone out by acting as an internal reviewer on a grant app. -but I would never agree to do that without the applicants clearly expressed permission and the process should not be anonymous because it fulfils a different scholarly purpose.

    Years ago I did encounter a well-meaning, meddling person at RMIT who without consultation sent my humanities based application to an internal reviewer with a science background – someone connected to R & I – the fact that neither this well-intentioned ‘manager’ nor the science based reviewer was familiar with my field of research did not prevent the reviewer from littering the app.paper with totally misguided observations- even suggesting a change of fundamental terminology because it was unfamiliar. What this approach suggests to me is a complete lack of respect for the intellectual capacity of the grant applicant, and it would not happen at university with a mature research culture.

    Of course researchers should be consulted on whether we want our work assessed by another- and we should also be in a position to choose a reviewer with relevant expertise (whether internal or external), and to choose whether or not their advice is taken on.

    We are not children, and should be consulted as a matter of basic professional respect.

    This applies to your question 1- Should an application be treated as confidential? – well ask the applicants, and leave the decision to them.

    question 2 – should you be able to speak to someone in the research office about an application- again ask the applicants- they will probably say it’s OK

    question 4- Can you use successful apps. as examples to help others? Again, ask the applicant- they will probably agree- but a courteous request is always better than coercion.

    question 5 Do you introduce 2 people working on similar apps.? – This is a no brainer – once again: ask both applicants

    The reason why we are not scoring as well as we could with the ARC for example in the non-science/tech areas is not because we lack good support from people like you- there are other reasons.

    As far as I am concerned, you are already doing a great job- so if the process ain’t broke -then don’t fix it.

    All the best
    Linda

    Like

    • Jonathan O'Donnell says:

      Thanks, Linda. My questions were somewhat rhetorical, as attitudes vary across universities. Some universities consider that the applications are the property of the university, and therefore they are free to do with them as they please.

      I’ve met other research whisperers who consider every aspect of the application to be completely confidential. They would not even ask if you would like to meet someone else working in a similar area (as that would indicate that there was someone working on another application somewhere).

      There are also differences depending on the size of the funds involved. At INORMS 2016, I listened to Simon McKeon talk about bringing together teams for enormous research funding bids. He used phrases like ‘cold logic’ and ‘starting from a blank slate’ to describe a purely rationalist, industrialised process. Then he talked about the team that he worked with to build the fastest boat in the world, and it was clear that those relationships were based on trust and driven by shared enthusiasm and interest.

      I’m very happy that all the projects I work on are based on trust and driven by the researchers, rather than a managerial, institution-driven imperative.

      Thanks for your support, and I look forward to working with you on your applications in the future.

      Jonathan

      Like

  2. Rob walker says:

    Not crazy at all. I’ve been involved in funding applications in four countries, govt and foundations, and it has always seemed to me that many good ideas end up on the cutting room floor, and many weak proposals get funded. Being more public might improve the judgements of those who make decisions.

    Like

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