1. ISCB recommends that bioinformatics funding agencies encourage reviewers to follow those URLs in bioinformatics grant proposals that provide information important to the grant review. Funding agencies should not forbid reviewers from following URLs in grant proposals.
2. ISCB recommends that bioinformatics funding agencies establish proxy Web servers for use by reviewers to facilitate anonymous access to applicant web sites.
This statement is motivated in part by the current grants policy of the US National Institutes of Health, which states "URLs may not be used to provide information necessary to the review because reviewers are under no obligation to view the Internet sites. Moreover, reviewers are cautioned that they should not directly access an Internet site as it could compromise their anonymity." (See URL http://grants2.nih.gov/grants/funding/phs398/phs398.pdf) That is, examination of web logs by an applicant might reveal the identity of a reviewer.
In addition, several NIH review panels now take the more restrictive position of forbidding reviewers to follow URLs.
Submission of software via a CD-ROM in conjunction with a grant would be one way to avoid using the Internet to demonstrate software or database capabilities to reviewers, however, the NIH also does not allow CD-ROMs to be submitted with a grant proposal.
Funding agencies are also concerned that URLs could be used to circumvent grant page restrictions if an applicant places additional information on their web site.
Another concern behind this policy is that there is no permanent record of the contents of any URL, and that if a grant PI later challenges a review by saying, for example, "This review is not competent because the reviewer's objection is clearly addressed by this information on my web site" there is no way for NIH to later validate what was on the PI's web site at an earlier time.
There are several related issues here. One issue pertains to third-party Web sites ("Third-party URLs") such as articles in online journals. Another relates to Web sites maintained by the applicant PI or their associates ("PI URLs");
1. Third-party URLs. There is simply no question that reviewers should be allowed to access third-party sites. Grant applications already contain extensive references to third-party information, namely scientific publications. As the model of scientific publishing evolves, some publications are available only through the web, and others are most efficiently accessed via the web. It is a waste of the reviewers’ time to forbid them from accessing such sites. With third-party sites there are no issues of anonymity nor of circumventing page limits.
2. PI URLs. The deliverables of many bioinformatics projects are databases or software packages that are resident on the web, and can most efficiently be accessed by reviewers through the web. Direct review of database and software packages via the web is both extremely informative, and extremely time efficient for the reviewer. To prevent the reviewer from interacting directly with a database or software package prevents the reviewer from having first-hand knowledge of the database or software that is extremely valuable, and introduces a serious risk that their knowledge is inadequate to perform an informed review. In addition, for large projects, part of their funding typically covers a service component that is also important for reviewers to assess. However, reviewers should be cautioned against basing a negative judgment on a single problematic session that could be caused by network outages that are beyond the control of the project. And small projects in particular cannot be expected to provide perfect 24x7 service.
It should be left to the discretion of the reviewer which URLs they consider important to the grant review. Although bioinformatics database and software-related applications are likely candidate projects where consideration of Web information will be important, the reviewer will be the best judge of when to follow a URL.
The anonymity concern of the NIH can be solved if reviewers use proxy servers, which shield the identity of the person accessing a web site. We recommend that the NIH fund the creation of proxy servers for use by grant reviewers; ISCB would be willing to host and operate such proxy servers.
NIH's page limitation concern can be solved if reviewers are not REQUIRED to read anything accessible through URLs.
The NIH concern of the lack of a permanent record for URLs is valid, but is outweighed by the other factors. Note also that reviewers are already influenced by many other subjective factors that are not part of the grant application.