Peer review

Mensch blickt durch Lupe auf einen kleinen Gegenstand

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 peer review procedures – an indispensable element of good foundation practice. 

Every year, hundreds of experts in Germany and abroad help the Foundation assess applications, both individually and as part of panels (“peer review”). Their recommendations form the basis for the decisions of the Board of Trustees and the Secretary General. The primary objective is to ensure the highest scientific quality. The Foundation attaches great importance to the transparency of the review process and the professionalism of all those involved in the evaluation of applications. 

Review process 

The review process is organised by the Foundation according to the framework and objectives of each call. It may consist of one or more stages. Submitted applications are first screened by the administrative office to determine whether they formally comply with the requirements described in the "Information for Applicants". If this is the case, an external review is carried out. Depending on the call and the review process defined for it, the Foundation will either obtain written individual reviews or have the applications received reviewed by a larger number of experts in an expert panel. The work of the panel may be supported by additional individual written reports. In many cases, applicants are given the opportunity to present and discuss their project with the panel of experts. The assessment of the experts forms the basis of the decision of the Board of Trustees or the Secretary General

Reviewer selection

The Foundation does not rely on a fixed pool of experts, but selects them according to the requirements of an application or initiative from different disciplines, universities and institutes - including non-university organisations - and takes into account aspects such as internationality and diversity. Without these external experts, it would not be possible to carry out a serious review of the several hundred draft proposals and applications submitted to the Foundation every year. 

We thank our supporters!

We would like to thank the approximately 400 volunteer reviewers - around a third of whom are from abroad - who support the Foundation in its review processes every year! 

Many thanks to our supporters!

When selecting reviewers, the Foundation not only looks for expertise, but also seeks to ensure that all forms of bias or partiality are excluded. 

If a person from the circle of experts falls under any of the following criteria, this person will not be permitted to take part in the review of the application concerned: 

  • Personal ties (kinship, friendship) or conflicts between assessors and applicants
  • Affiliation or impending transfer to the research institution in question
  • Current or former career dependency
  • Scientific collaboration (joint research projects, events, publications)
  • Participation in a supervisory board/decision-making body of an applicant research institution.
  • Direct competition
  • Economic interests (own or related persons) in the grant application

Members of review panels are required not to submit own applications for funding for the duration of their activity as reviewers. If a proposal is submitted to the respective funding initiative, reviewers will leave the committee in question. This also applies if multiple applications are submitted from their direct scientific environment.

Notwithstanding, the Foundation realizes that it cannot know all circumstances that could give rise to partiality. It is therefore ultimately dependent on the reviewers themselves to report biases they may become aware of.  

Rules of good practice

By acting as reviewers, the experts consulted by the Foundation recognize the following rules of good practice as binding. If it is not possible to give a vote in accordance with these rules, they must decline to participate in the review – which they may do without giving reasons.

  • The review follows the rules of good scientific practice. All information provided is truthful and is not intended to infringe the intellectual property of others or to interfere with their research activities.
  • Agreeing to act as a reviewer entails being responsible for assessing essential aspects of the application. Should experts consulted do not consider themselves responsible, they shall notify the Foundation.
  • If reviewers feel biased in any way, they likewise withdraw from the review process. 
  • In addition to scientific considerations, the favorable or unfavorable recommendation takes into account the requirements, objectives, and restrictions applicable in the respective funding initiative according to the "Information for Applicants".
  • Reviewers treat the applications submitted to them confidentially and do not make the contents known to third parties.
  • The use of generative models in the preparation of reviews is not permitted in view of the confidentiality of the review process. Documents provided for review are confidential and may not be used as input for generative models.

Feedback on peer-reviewed applications 

The Foundation tries to inform applicants as soon as possible whether their application has been successful or not. Written individual reviews are the exception in the programs of the Volkswagen Foundation. Instead, funding recommendations are often made by reviewers in review committees after discussion of the shortlisted applications. These discussions and decisions are recorded in minutes by the administrative office. As these minutes contain, among other things, direct comparisons with other proposals submitted, they cannot be disclosed to applicants, whether they have been rejected or recommended for funding. The Volkswagen Foundation reserves the right not to provide substantive feedback. In particular, in the case of decisions on calls for which a large number of applications are expected, feedback is generally not possible.  In the case of applications that have been rejected after several stages of selection, or as part of a more complex application procedure, it may be possible to receive more detailed feedback by telephone from the respective program manager. 

Further development of assessment procedures 

The Volkswagen Foundation sees itself as an important driving force in the (German) research scene. In addition to its role as a promoter of innovative approaches and topics in research and teaching, the Foundation is also experimenting with application and selection procedures to make them more efficient and equitable. These include, for example, the use of lotteries in decision-making ("Experiment!", 2017-2020), video sketches in selection procedures ("Momentum", since 2022) or distributed peer review ("Open Up", 2024). These pilot projects are monitored in order to share and discuss the findings with interested institutions in Germany and abroad. 

Information on partially randomized selection procedure

Since 2017, the Volkswagen Foundation is testing a new selection procedure for project applications: In the funding initiative "Experiment!", part of the funded projects are selected by an independent jury. Additionally, further projects are drawn from those applications that are suitable for the program and eligible for funding. Background and reactions to a new and unusual selection procedure.

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