Just Ask!

Celia Hooper

The NIH Catalyst is experimenting with a new column in which we will attempt to run down answers and solutions to your questions and problems that stand in the way of the efficient conduct of intramural research. Please don't ask us to analyze your data or get more money for your lab, but if you are having trouble tracking down collaborators or otherwise navigating the NIH bureaucracy, Just Ask! Send your questions to catalyst@od1em1.od.nih.gov

Dear Just Ask:

All scientific papers from NIH have to be read by another NIH scientist before they are sent out to a journal. What's the purpose of this? The journals will peer review the paper, anyway, so why does it have to be pre-reviewed within NIH? Quite often, outside reviewers are more familiar with the subject matter than are other NIH scientists, and in any case, there's no requirement that the NIH reader be in the same field. Most readers seem to only superficially read the paper. And since they are not protected by the anonymity of journal peer review and since papers are traded back and forth between scientists, NIH reviewers would be highly unlikely to make critical comments!

- An anonymous scientist

Dear Anonymous:

We suspect that many senior investigators feel the same way you do. Aside from being a legal requirement for federal workers, publication clearance provides a very basic level of quality control, helps keep supervisors informed, and serves as a checkpoint for a few other procedures. The exact steps vary from one institute, center, or division (ICD) to the next, but the good news is that clearance does not have to slow down the publication process significantly.

Just Ask quizzed six scientific directors (SDs) or acting SDs on the review requirement. They agreed that local review is not a substitute for peer review, but felt that local signoffs-whether by just the SD (the minimal NIH requirement) or by a colleague, a section chief, a lab or branch chief, the SD, and the institute director (the maximum requirement for any ICD)-can provide a coarse screen against embarrassing mistakes. For example, such reviews can weed out insulting or inflammatory language or ethical lapses you wouldn't even want journal peer reviewers to see. Beyond this, choosing an expert intramural reader may root out glaring experimental errors or serious omissions in citations, reducing revisions at later stages.

Signoff by supervisors also helps to keep them informed about ongoing work. This is good not only for the coordination of research programs, but also for the author the next time he or she starts thinking about a raise or more space. Also, some SDs use the publication checkoff as an opportunity to be sure that scientists have followed the rules on authorship and have notified the Office of Tech Transfer of any potentially licensable discoveries, as well as to launch the needed paperwork to recover publication charges, to enter the oeuvre in the ICD's annual bibliography, and to give communications offices a heads-up if the subject is of wide public interest.

All of the SDs queried agree that clearance procedures should not substantially delay publications of a paper. Some institutes that require multiple signoffs formally or informally allow authors to complete the process after the paper has been submitted for publication. At institutes where the SD must sign off before submission, the turn-around time is short-from a few hours to a few days. NIAMS's Henry Metzger advises, "Scientists should work with their SDs if they think their institute's policies are too cumbersome."

- C.H.

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