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Southampton Health Technology Assessments CentreNews

Peer review of research funding proposals in health: a systematic map and a systematic review of the evidence base just published

Published: 15 May 2018
Peer reviewer evaluating a proposal
Peer review informs research funding agencies’ decisions about which research to commission

The map and review, published in the open access journal PLOS ONE, identified and characterised research studies of the peer review of health research funding proposals and examined the impact of innovative peer review approaches on the efficiency and effectiveness of review systems.

The peer review of research proposals by topic experts, health care professionals and the public plays a significant part in informing health research funding agencies’ decisions about which applications to fund. It is important that the processes and systems in place for peer review are effective in identifying the ‘best’ research and make efficient use of time and financial resources. However, there has been no up-to-date systematic review of the research evidence in this area.

Researchers in the Wessex Institute, Faculty of Medicine, of which SHTAC is part, looked at the existing research evidence base on the peer review of health funding applications to investigate methods and processes for the timely, efficient and effective completion of peer review activities. The researchers carried out the work as part of a number of projects within the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) to investigate potential improvements to peer review. The systematic map characterising studies of the peer review of health research funding proposals identified 83 studies from 15 countries, most of which had been published since 2005. The studies focused on a variety of topics, including bias in peer review, the predictive ability of peer review to identify research projects that will be successful, the number and type of reviewers needed and consistency of judgements between reviewers.

In consultation with the NIHR, the review team subsequently carried out an in-depth systematic review of studies of peer review innovations to existing practice, to identify which innovative approaches might improve the efficiency and effectiveness of peer review. This topic was of particular interest to the NIHR. Eight studies met the review inclusion criteria. The studies evaluated a range of innovations, such as simplifying the process (for example by using shortened proposals and smaller reviewer panels) and conducting peer review by a videoconference or teleconference. The in-depth review found that simplifying peer review could reduce the time and costs involved and that video- and tele-conference approaches were promising for reducing costs and reviewers’ travel time. No studies, however, examined the impact of these approaches on the quality of the reviews. Due to the methodological limitations of the studies, the researchers concluded that it is not possible to recommend implementation of any of the peer review approaches identified.

The full paper reporting the systematic map and review can be freely accessed from the PLOS ONE website.

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