Incentive bonus of 10,000 euros for reviewers 

#Peer Review

Würfel mit verschiedenen Symbolen, darunter Glühbirne und Figur mit Doktorhut, ein Würfel mit der Aufschrift "Fördermittel"

Until June 30, 2024, researchers who participate in peer reviews for the Volkswagen Foundation can receive 10,000 euros in additional funding. Henrike Hartmann and Selahattin Danisman explain the unusual experiment.

Projects funded by the Volkswagen Foundation should meet the highest scientific standards. Ensuring this quality would not be possible without the large number of engaged reviewers in Germany and abroad who support the Foundation with their expertise. To show its appreciation for their commitment and work, the Foundation has decided to try out something quite new: 25 reviewers will be selected by lot to receive 10,000 euros each – provided they invest this amount in science, for example in international collaborations and sharing expertise, for workshops, programs for visiting researchers or lab visits.

In this interview, Henrike Hartmann, Deputy Secretary General of the Volkswagen Foundation, and Selahattin Danisman, the responsible program manager, explain the concept.

Ms. Hartmann, Mr. Danisman, the Foundation is providing a total of 250,000 euros in additional funding for its reviewers. What is behind this idea?

Hartmann: Peer review when evaluating applications counts as an indispensable seal of quality for the Foundation. We have high standards for the selection of project proposals – and the same goes for their review. On the other hand, we can only pay a token remuneration for the effort involved. We know this and have therefore thought about how we can underscore our appreciation for the invaluable contribution made by the reviewers. We would also like to give them more visibility.

Danisman: The result is the field experiment "Additional funding for reviewers", which was put in place on July 1, 2023. Twenty-five "winners" will be randomly selected from all those who provide expert reviews for the Foundation between now and June 30, 2024. The only condition: To participate, they must first provide a brief description of the scientific context in which the 10,000 euros will be spent. However, this "application" should not be longer than one page.

Portrait einer Frau

Dr. Henrike Hartmann is Deputy Secretary General and heads the Funding Department of the Volkswagen Foundation.

Hartmann: What I particularly like about our idea is that the reward is germane to science: We give money to our reviewers, which they then return to the science system. That's a structural difference from the expense allowances that many funders pay for reviews – which are also viewed somewhat critically.

Why is it being criticized?

Hartmann: There is a widespread view that peer-to-peer review is part of the job of professors and therefore should not be remunerated separately. Public funding agencies have adopted this logic. We pay an expense allowance also as a motivational aid, because we often approach international researchers or those who are not even eligible to apply in the respective program. However, the amount can by no means be considered adequate reward for the amount of work they put in.

How can I participate?

All reviewers who work for us in the period from July 1, 2023 to June 30, 2024 will automatically take part in the drawing in July 2024. The 25 people drawn then only have to submit a short description of the scientific purpose for which they want to use 10,000 euros.  

The pilot phase for this field trial ends on June 30, 2024, after which all the submitted short applications will go into a lottery drum?

Hartmann: I find the term "lottery" misleading in this context. It sounds too trivial to me and counteracts our intention: The idea behind the additional funding is to thank the experts for the work they have done. So anyone who participates will have already put in a lot of effort beforehand. This is not comparable to buying a lottery ticket at the fairground.

Danisman: Hundreds of reviewers do their best for the Foundation every year. But only 25 of them can benefit from the money spent on this experiment. In the context of research, 10,000 euros may sound a small amount. But sometimes it is precisely this "small change" that is lacking – for example to finance the research stay of doctoral students who want to learn a method used in another laboratory or to organize a small workshop with colleagues from abroad.

Where else is the Foundation considering innovations in the context of peer review?

Danisman: We are actually looking at all our funding processes with the aim of making them fairer and more efficient. This starts with the consultation and advice we offer applicants and continues all the way through to approval. For example, "online consultations" have emerged from the experience we all gained with videoconferencing during the pandemic. We often organize these a few months before the next deadline for a funding offer. Interested parties then have the opportunity to spend one or two hours clarifying their questions with experts from the Foundation. It is not uncommon for hundreds of interested parties to take part in such video calls. In the "Momentum" funding initiative, on the other hand, we ask applicants to outline their projects in 90-second videos as a first step. After accompanying research evaluated this approach positively, we are going to continue this format.

Portrait eines Mannes

Dr. Selahattin Danisman is program manager in the Volkswagen Foundation's "Understanding Research" team.

Hartmann: And a few days ago, the Board of Trustees agreed that we should try out a distributed peer review process. This means that applicants become reviewers at the same time. Other funders have already gained experience with this. In context of the review process, we also hope to gain insights from our participation in the Research on Research Institute (RoRi ). For example, from the working group on "The Future of Peer Review," in which the Foundation participates. Another question I think we urgently need to address is how AI tools might contribute towards changes in the peer review process?

What insights do you hope to gain from the "additional funding for reviewers" experiment?

Danisman: We are, of course, interested in how the grantees would spend the 10,000 euros. If patterns emerge here, this could also have a structural impact on the Foundation's funding activities. We are also curious to see whether this incentive helps to bind reviewers more closely to the Foundation. And finally, we are curious to see how other actors in the science system will react to our idea. All the experiments we venture into are carefully evaluated, often with accompanying research. It is part of our funding strategy to generate fresh impetus in the science system and to promote structural change.

Hartmann: The willingness to experiment is a strategic feature of our funding activities. Here, our independence sets us apart from other, mainly public, funding organizations and gives us more leeway to try out unusual things. We are happy to accept that an experiment may not turn out to be as successful as we had hoped. However, in all modesty, this happens very, very rarely.

Peer Review

It is a fundamental principle of the Volkswagen Foundation and part of its self-image to make its funding decisions comprehensible and sustainable. This would be inconceivable without adequate procedures of peer review – an indispensable element of good foundation practice.

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