• DO: Pause before you respond – We all know that defensive feeling that we get when we get some negative or critical comments. If you’ve received some comments that have ruffled your feathers, it might be tempting to write your response while you’re riding high on the adrenaline you get when you feel you’ve been wronged or misunderstood. However, an overly defensive response does not play well with panels. Therefore, it’s better to wait a day or two after receiving your reviews before returning to write your response, once you’ve had time to reflect more objectively on the comments. If you really do need to get some things off your chest – write the impassioned response you really want to write first, then file that away and re-write the objective version. Just be careful that you send the right version to your funders!
• DO: Systematically identify and address all the questions and concerns raised – Too many times in panel discussions I heard ‘the PI robustly addressed points A and B, but failed to mention points X and Y’, or ‘the PI responded comprehensively to all the questions raised by reviewer D, but gave no consideration to the seemingly valid points made by reviewer E’. As you can imagine, this does not help your case. I recommend getting your highlighters out and systematically working through each review to identify and list each point you will need to respond to and then crossing them off once you’ve addressed it in your PI response. If it helps, get someone else to look through the reviews with you in case they spot things you don’t. By working through them systematically in this way, you can feel confident that you’re not skipping over important points.
• DO: Acknowledge where improvements can be made and how you would do this – Perfection is a myth. It is not possible to write a ‘perfect’ research proposal and there will always be aspects you could improve upon. Part of the role of the reviewers is to spot where minor changes could make a positive difference to the research. They are seeing it from a different perspective from you and might well spot something you’d not previously thought of. This is great, because ultimately it will make the research better. So, if your reviewers make a valid suggestion that you could reasonably implement within the bounds of the funding you’re asking for then don’t dismiss it. Instead, thank them for their useful insights and provide a clear explanation of how you will incorporate their suggestions into your existing research plans.
• DO: Respectfully and robustly justify your approaches – In some instances you will not agree with points made by your reviewers, and you will have solid and informed rationales for the approaches you propose. In this case it is appropriate for you to present a robust counterargument to the reviewers’ concerns. Keep this clear, factual and evidence-based as far as possible. Do not criticise the views of the reviewers (see the don’ts), instead, draw upon existing data and research where you can and/or highlight the skills and expertise in the research team to provide assurances of your ability to deliver.
• DO: Thank the reviewers – Whatever you think of the reviews, your reviewers have spent their valuable time reading and evaluating your proposal, so it is important that you give a sentence over in your response to acknowledge this. The panel members, as a collective part of the peer review process, will appreciate that you recognise the effort people are putting into the process.