Grant rant

Apr 09 2013 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Don't use numbered references in a grant proposal. Just don't. Save the space elsewhere, not every word you write is danced upon by angels. Cut a couple sentences and get the (Author year) refs back in there. Because I'm not going to the ref section to look these up and I'm not going to get a feel for YOUR contribution to this field nearly as well if you're not citing your lab's stuff in the text.

28 responses so far

  • duffymeg says:

    Even with (Author Year) citations, it can be hard to get a sense for contributions from that lab without bouncing to the references a lot, since the PI is often not the first author. I certainly prefer non-numbered citations, but apparently don't feel as strongly about it as you do.

    Do you think preproposals also shouldn't have numbered citations?

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Amen, brother. Amen.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    But everyone makes an effort to point out their pubs in the text. The (name year) refs make this easier to follow, even if the PI isn't first author. And yes, I think all proposals should avoid numbered refs.

  • ianqui says:

    Also, NUMBER THE PAGES like they ask you to when they say "Proposers may select any numbering mechanism for the proposal. The entire proposal however, must be paginated" on the Table of Contents.

    And if you use Arial 10.5 pt font with less-than-single spacing, it is almost guaranteed that I will comb (very painfully) through your (very painful) proposal to find as many problems as I can to justify my low rating. If you can't explain your work in 15 pages of preferably 12pt (but I may accept 11pt) Times New Roman, you don't deserve to get funding.

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    I used to number my grant refs for just this space saving reason but it results in discombobulating references from (con)text (a little like having to put figures at the end of a manuscript rather than text embedded). Given most grants are reviewed on-line, is it too much to ask to allow mouse-over previews (or touch pop-ups)? While I can see there's room for abuse, the easier it is for the reviewer to follow and absorb your material, the better for everyone.

    In Canada, some agencies (*cough* looking at you CFI) flatten everything so that text is plain Monaco and the only emphasis is whether or not you use UPPERCASE. Guaranteed to gloss over the most earnest eyes.

    As grant application page limits are reduced, its even more important to resist the desire to condense the prose so it sounds like staccatto machine gun fire.

  • eeke says:

    Every proposal in my pile used numbered refs. If the proposal sucks, is it really going to matter whether you can see how much of the PI's published work contributed to what they are proposing? Unpublished, preliminary data is far more important. Whether the applicant had already contributed publication(s) to the field was usually made very obvious within the proposal. Reference style made no difference to me.

  • Emilio Bruna says:

    Based on recent service on a preproposal panel and as a writer of same, I have two obervations. 1) I dislike the numbered cites both as a writer and reader and 2) this train has left the station - over 90% of the proposals chose numbered cites and nothe one on the panel complained too much. They did, however, complain about the wall of text that results from limited indentation or white space. Small font sizes also got complaints, even from people reading on computers.

  • Emilio Bruna says:

    Just out of curiosity, how many print out to review vs. read on-screen?

  • New postdoc says:

    Does this preference extend to papers you're reading, or only proposals? As a postdoc, I haven't had much opportunity yet to read proposals, but when reading papers, I personally much prefer numbered references to (author year) ones. That way, most of the time, all the references for a given topic are grouped together. But maybe this preference is because I'm looking at the refs in order to do some further reading, which you are unlikely to be doing when looking at a proposal? Or is my journal article reference preference weird, too?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Manuscripts have to conform to journal policy, proposals do not.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Eeke, all we need to do then is write flawless proposals so no one notices the refs. That should be simple enough.

  • jakester says:

    if you're citing multiple papers or putting multiple citations within one sentence (author, year) refs make it almost impossible to read quickly.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    if you're citing multiple papers or putting multiple citations within one sentence (author, year) refs make it almost impossible to read quickly.

    Um.... For a grad student? If you can't mentally skim parenthetical references after a couple of years, maybe this isn't the right thing for you.

  • MediumPriority4Life says:

    Finished a NSF pre-proposal panel with over 70 preproposals, most used numbered references, the highest rated proposals used numbered references, no negative comments were made about reference format from the 15 panel members.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    I think y'all are confusing grantsmanship with panel-level discussion. If you're complaining about ref format on a panel, you probably don't belong there.

  • Emilio Bruna says:

    not sure I agree, PLS - readability is part of effectively communicating ideas, and a panel's job is in part to judge how well ideas are communicated. Panelists complain about all kinds of stuff, from readability to sample sizes. The advantage to complaints made during panel discussions, even about seemingly 'small' stuff like proposal formatting, is that they often make their way into the summary, so people might actually change their approach in future submissions.

  • Cynric says:

    Poor applicants can't win! If I get a author-year formatted proposal I sigh inwardly. Much prefer numbers: neat, uncluttered, and easier to find quickly in the bibliography than alphabetical (especially in the Zhang et al. 2002a-d cases).

    Maybe the reviewer prejudices will cancel out overall...

  • Potnia Theron says:

    As I have said a million times: why would you do anything that might piss a reviewer off? Even if 90% do it, and no one complains, there are enough WHO DON"T LIKE IT.

    And, for the gazillionth time: page limits are your friend. If you are needing to save that much space by numbering citations, you have written too much. Its not just that every word is angelic (although that is true), saying it more succinctly, leaving out the stuff you don't need is part of what will get you funded.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    Nearly all of the detrimental effect of numbered citation style has been priced in before it comes to panel discussion. And no, nobody is going to *say* this made a difference in their score. But it did.

  • mentor prof says:

    Personally, I dislike [author name] as a reader. It totally clutters the page and gets in the way of sentence flow. In my field, the first author is the grad student or postdoc who did the work, so that name often doesn't mean anything to me as a reader. So I still need to page to the end and find the full citation to find out the name of the journal and the PI. Often when I see [author name] as the selected reference format, it seems that the proposal writers were too crunched for time to merge their citations, so they each just wrote their own sections of the grant and then made an administrative assistant alphabetize the references.

  • DrLizzyMoore says:

    So, write the proposal in comic sans AND number all references....got it!!!

  • Arthur Hunt says:

    When I change from numbered to (author, year) for a 4 page preproposal, it adds 18 lines (about 1/4 of a page). This may be less of an issue for the 15 page full proposal, but it's hard to give up 1/4 of a page in a 4 page proposal. That's close to what a BI statement might be, or what a good illustration takes up.

  • DrugMonkey says:

    If you think it is "hard to give up" *anything* in the face of improved readability then you are a fool.

  • theecologist says:

    Well, at least I did something right with my first preproposal!

  • anotherpostdoc says:

    What if I used an asterisk to identify publications from my research group? Like "yadda, yadda, yadda [1][2*][3][4*]" (and specified what the asterisk meant with a footnote)?

    Or maybe make my own contributions clear in the text, such as "as has been shown by our group [2],[4], as well as others [1][3]"?

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Could work. Another possibility would be bolding refs from your group. I, personally, find that I don't remember the numbers associated with the lab, but I can with names.

  • ProfBC says:

    Shouldn't you be saying explicitly what you have done? If you are leaving it to the citation, you are doing it wrong.

    My Grad Advisor on NIH renewals would have two citation lists. The first was for all the papers published thanks to the grant and cited in the progress report which ended with that list of papers. The second citation list was for all the other papers cited in the proposal. When citing papers from the progress report they were given PR#. Other papers just had a number. It made it pretty clear what the lab had done recently (not to mention how productive we were).

    Seemed to work well for him. Routinely rated in the top 1 %.

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