The cruel world of funding peer review

This article began life as a presentation for Peer review and grant funding: From evidence to practice at Melbourne University, 17 November 2017. Thanks to Adrian Barnett and Philip Clarke for inviting me to speak.


Before I begin, I should point out that I write from a position of incredible privilege. I’m not an academic – I’m a university administrator. I am securely employed, and have been for most of my working life. My job is to help academics find funding for their research.

In that role, I work with Australian academics from RMIT University. I work with artists, designers, educators, social scientists and humanities scholars, primarily on their Australian Research Council applications. A significant number of the academics that I have worked with over the last seven years have been early career researchers, generally trying to win their first major grant.

Early career researchers face a cruel world these days. Even though they are an increasingly diverse cohort, they are still generally imagined as young, full-time academics without significant outside commitments. They aren’t. Many of them have significant responsibilities outside of work, taking care of children and elderly parents or working on limited visas, far from home. Most of them have no secure work, while being expected to take on increasing levels of accountability. Their research outputs, their teaching performance and even their scholarly engagement with the world are under intense scrutiny and evaluation.

All this has interesting ramifications for the peer review system that we use for government grants.

A professor stands at the top of a pyramid of scholars and students. Advice flows downwards and cites flow upwards. When funding runs out, the scheme collapses.

Beware the Profzi Scheme, on “Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham http://www.phdcomics.com

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Crowdsourcing transcriptions of open archives

This article began life as a presentation for Open Access week at La Trobe University, 23 October 2017. Thanks to La Trobe for inviting me to speak.


Poster for the Real Face of White Australia Transcribe-a-thon MoAD at Old Parliament House 9-10 September 2017, showing a handprint, an identity photo and a bureaucratic form in the background.A little while back, I travelled to Canberra with my partner, Sophie Couchman, to help Tim Sherratt and Kate Bagnall with their ‘Real Face of White Australia’ project. We spent the weekend transcribing documents relating to the history of White Australia, and Australia’s historical attempts to exclude people who were not ‘white’.

First, a bit of history. There was a period (not so long ago, in the scheme of things) when Australia used a bureaucratic system to bar entry to anyone who wasn’t white. As part of that process, we used a ‘dictation test’ to bar entry to anyone deemed undesirable.

If you were already a resident in Australia (because, for example, you had been born here) and didn’t look white, you needed to get an exemption from the dictation test before you went overseas. If you didn’t, you might not be allowed to re-enter the country. These ‘Certificates Exempting from Dictation Test’ are all stored in Australian archives, and provide valuable insights into that period of history.

Unfortunately, they are currently all locked away. Not because of the issues that normally relate to Open Access: ‘Open’ versus ‘Closed’ legal permissions (although there are issues there) or ‘ ‘Free speech’ versus ‘Free beer’ (versus ‘Free puppies’) monetary issues. No. This information is locked away because it is handwritten on paper. Even where the archive has digitised the certificates, there is no reliable way to optically recognize (OCR) the characters.

We lose sight, sometimes, of how much stuff is still locked away on paper, in handwriting. That’s where I came in. With my partner, Sophie, I went to Canberra and spent a couple of days transcribing this handwritten data. Read more of this post

Will the government fund my research?

This article first appeared in Funding Insight on 10 August 2017 and is reproduced with permission of Research Professional. For more articles like this, visit www.researchprofessional.com.


A government cheque issued by the Chinese Emperor to fund his war against the Taiping Rebellion.

Providing funds for suppressing the Heavenly Kingdom, by Jonathan O’Donnell on Flickr

Sometimes, researchers are worried that their grant application will not be successful because it does not align with a particular ideology or a policy direction of the government of the day.

My researchers, perhaps more than most, have a right to be worried about government interference in research granting processes. Before the last election, the Opposition promised not to fund any more ‘frivolous’ research. One of my researchers was in the cross-hairs, with her project listed as something that they believed should ‘never have been funded’. Then they won the election – it’s enough to make a body nervous, dontcha know.

So, it comes as no surprise when artists, environmentalists, indigenous researchers, people working with refugees, with minority groups, with renewable energy or anyone examining government policy asks ‘Will the government fund my work?’

tl;dr – they will.

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Patronage as a research crowdfunding model

Martin Pfeiffer with a box of National Nuclear Security Administration FOIA documents.

Martin Pfeiffer with a box of National Nuclear Security Administration FOIA documents. Used with permission.

Meet Martin Pfeiffer. Martin uses anthropology to investigate nuclear weapons. That’s amazing, in and of itself. Even more interestingly, Martin is crowdfunding his research and I’m all in favour of research crowdfunding.

What really got me excited, though, was how Martin is crowdfunding his research. Martin is crowdfunding on Patreon.

Patreon works differently to most other crowdfunding services. On Patreon, you donate a small amount regularly. For example (and in the spirit of full disclosure), I support Martin for US$2 per month.

As I write this, people like me are donating $551 per month to Martin’s research, and that funding base is growing. On 27 June 2017, when I subscribed, Martin was receiving $442 in donations. Now it is $551. By the time you read this, it may have crept a bit higher.

$550 per month doesn’t seem like much, but $6,000 a year (you lose a bit on fees) can be handy when you need to pay for copying, or freedom of information requests, or local travel, or any of the myriad of costs that may or may not be covered by your research grant.

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One with the lot

A lovely hamburger.

Yum, by Jonathan O’Donnell

There are a lot of clever ways to design your research. There are a few that are not so clever, too.

I came across two grant applications recently that used the ‘one with the lot’ design. They promised the world, if only the funding agency would give them some money. That isn’t clever. At best, it is a recipe for failure. If, by some chance, you do get funded, you’ll find it a recipe for disaster and heartache.

One application was a full-time fellowship for three years – a serious amount of money. The applicant talked about doing a longitudinal study of a population at risk, analysing it across half a dozen different categories, and doing a multi-country comparison. There was no way that they were going to be able to do all that work in three years.

The second promised a lifetime worth of work for a $20,000 grant. They were going to travel, do some impressive digital humanities work, build and maintain a website and convene a workshop. There were a lot of publications in there, too.

Both of these applicants were relatively inexperienced and seeking advice about how to improve their applications. Both drafts will be substantially revised before submission. I encourage applicants to give me very rough drafts so that we can do exactly that sort of substantial revision.

What I want to talk about here is the mindset behind ‘one with the lot’ projects.

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Learning from others

Thanks to the Australasian Research Management Society (ARMS) and the US National Council of University Research Administrators (NCURA) for their fellowship, which made my trip possible. Thanks also to Kirsten Yehl for making my trip a fantastic success.


Jonathan looking nervous, as he holds a NURAP sign in front of a poster that says 'Chicago'

Jonathan at the Northwestern University Research Administration Professionals meeting

In September – October last year, I travelled from my base at RMIT University in Melbourne, Australia to Northwestern University, Chicago, as an ARMS / NCURA Fellow. I spent time with the research administrators in the School of Engineering and the Institute of Public Health.

During that time, I learnt that there were a lot of similarities in working with academics in both our countries. I also learnt the value of reflecting on my own professional practice by discussing it with people who do very different things.

Here are a few of the things that contrasted with my everyday Australian experiences:

Scope: I was constantly reminded that the scope of research between our two institutions was so different. At one of my meetings, a Northwestern research administrator was thrilled that one of her researchers had just been awarded the Nobel Prize. That’s not going to happen to me anytime soon!

Northwestern attracts US$620 million (A$850 million) annually in sponsored research. That’s almost A$3 million more than the Australian Research Council. In addition, they have US$10.5 billion in endowments and other trust funds. This difference in scale leads to a difference in understanding of what research can be undertaken, a difference in how grant applications are developed, and a difference in how the resulting research funding is scrutinised.

Attitude: The Research Administrators at Northwestern are there to make it as easy as possible for their researchers to apply for funding and to do their research. That is (or should be) the same the world over. However, it is an important thing to keep in mind, especially when we are in the thick of things. Read more of this post

What makes a strong rejoinder

A quick opening note on terminology: I use ‘assessor’ to refer to experts who read and review research grant applications, then provide comments into the final decision-making process. Terminology varies a bit between funders, and between countries. We’re not talking about journal reviewers, although some of the advice that follows may also apply there.


Fierce! Photo by Vincent van der Pas, taken at the Tokyo National Museum | www.flickr.com/photos/archetypefotografie

Fierce! Photo by Vincent van der Pas, taken at the Tokyo National Museum | http://www.flickr.com/photos/archetypefotografie

In 2012, with Adam Golberg of Cash for Questions (UK), we wrote ‘Rational responses to referees, our advice on preparing your rejoinder or response to comments on your grant application. It was good advice then, and it’s good advice now.

As my applicants are busy writing their responses, this seemed like a good time to build on ‘Rational responses to referees’.

This post provides some advice on the specifics that I want to see in a strong response, and how you might deal with some tricky situations. When your response goes back to funding body, it will be considered along with hundreds or even thousands of other applications.

In such a situation, you want to make it as easy as possible for the reader (the funders) to understand your response.

White space

I’ve seen a draft that was a wall of text, 5,000 characters long. There were no paragraphs breaks and no white space. It was exhausting to look at.

Be kind to your reader – cherish the white space. Put white space between paragraphs. Indent first lines. Use formatting (if the system allows it – the ARC doesn’t).

All the normal rules of civilised writing still apply, even if you have a lot to say and a severe limit on how many characters you can include. Invite your reader to engage with your text. Read more of this post