Piquing the Curiosity of Peer Review


In her latest blog, Dr Annette Bramley, director of N8, discusses the curious case of peer reviewers.

“Curiosity. It’s the mindset that drives all research, creativity and art. Where would we be if early humans hadn’t been curious about fire, or Newton hadn’t been curious about an apple falling from a tree?

I started to wonder – how curious are researchers really? Like all of us, they are curious some of the time, and not curious at other times. So then I started to wonder – how curious are peer reviewers and does that matter?

Wondering, by the way, is a typical characteristic of a curious state. A state which pushes us to seek out and explore new information and experiences which will help us to learn and innovate. Asking questions (sometimes inconvenient ones) is also another typical characteristic of someone being curious. Einstein himself said, “I have no special talents I am only passionately curious.” If it’s good enough for Einstein, it’s good enough for me. So I carried on with this thought experiment…

Someone applying for funding for research is likely to have got themselves highly curious about a problem or challenge. They’ve identified a gap in their understanding, and to the best of their knowledge, no-one else has filled this gap. They’ve pulled together a programme of work to help fill this gap. They want to push at the boundaries of what we comprehend and to take us beyond the status quo.

They submit the proposal for peer review, at which point experts will be asked to give their opinion. Experts are highly familiar with their subject (the clue is in the name). In general, they don’t have large gaps in their understanding- they are experts after all. But the absence of information gaps throws up a risk – that the experts’ curiosity is not stimulated by the proposal.

This is a natural response when there is a small information gap. Why? Because the human brain likes shortcuts and peer reviewers are under a great deal of time pressure. They need to carry out the review in the most efficient way. Without a reviewer even realising, their brains will draw on past experiences (good) and jump to conclusions (bad) in an effort to be efficient. What this means for peer review is that ideas that challenge received wisdom, or the status quo may be shut down, rather than arouse curiosity.  Over-familiarity with a line of thinking may also encourage the reviewer’s brain to go into autopilot rather than selecting the curious gear.

What can an individual applicant do to encourage the expert reviewers to feel at least some of the curiosity that they felt when they were putting their proposal together? They can’t immediately reduce the workloads of peer reviewers (although that would, of course, be desirable because the system is straining at the seams).  The only tool that the applicant has in their toolbox is the proposal itself. An applicant has to use this one opportunity to build curiosity in experts. If you can ignite a small glimmer of curiosity, the reviewer’s brain will release the reward hormone dopamine, which makes it more likely they will stay curious about your proposal long enough to circumvent the short-circuits that might otherwise have them jumping to conclusions.

But how to do that within the fairly rigid confines of a proposal? Here are some approaches you can consider:

1.      Highlight the novel or surprising angle early on.

Many proposals start with a substantial overview of previous work and the state of the art. Reviewers often have had to read a lot of material before they get to the new insight or idea that is at the heart of the application. If you want a curious reviewer, you need to grab their attention and curiosity early on, before their brain has engaged the shortcuts it will otherwise use to speed this task up.

Great ideas tend to grow out of an insight that you learned through first-hand experience, something that not a lot of other people know.  Suneel Gupta, in his book, Backable, calls this the concept of the “earned secret”. What is the insight that you have about the problem that you can’t get from Google? What is new about the angle you have that makes it different from what has gone before? Engaging a reviewer’s curiosity early on is important. You then need to maintain it through the rest of the proposal.

2.      Add an element of mystery

A mystery is a sure-fire way to spark curiosity. Curiosity comes from a knowledge gap – and knowledge comes from solving a mystery. By evoking a sense of intrigue, a different perspective and a puzzle that might be solved, you may be able to kindle curiosity within an expert who is used to thinking about the subject in a different way. A story is also a great way of helping an expert see the problem from your perspective; as human beings we make sense of the world around us through stories. A mystery is also a good way to challenge the status quo. If a piece of the puzzle is missing, and you can find it there will be a new paradigm, which will itself be open to its boundaries being pushed and challenged and so on and so on…..

3.      Set your research within a wider context

Having a wider view can introduce a new perspective to an old problem. This can also reduce an expert’s familiarity which in turn is a good way to pique their curiosity- ‘I never thought about it like that!’.  Presenting the background context and state of the art to the reviewer in a way that is intriguing will help to trigger the release of a dopamine hit that comes with a new insight. The reveal of how your great idea is the solution to this problem comes when you zoom back into the specifics.

4.      Pose questions: What if? What could be possible when….?

Questions help bust assumptions and help us to pay attention. You can use them to frame insights or a new perspective or to make the narrative style more interesting.  When my children were taught to write persuasive letters at school, a key element they were taught to include is the rhetorical question, to make the reader STOP and think. Stopping interrupts the unconscious loop of shortcuts and has the potential to reveal a surprising insight which in turn might get the dopamine flowing.

5.      Be willing to be wrong

If you, the applicant, are pushing at the edges of what is known, there is a possibility that you might be taking the wrong approach. How would you know? When would you know? Come up with some strong evidence or arguments for not funding your research. This will help you to pre-empt some of the concerns of skeptical reviewers by addressing them head-on and help you make better arguments for funding your proposal.

Even if you ignite your reviewers’ curiosity, there is no guarantee that they will decide that your proposal is a high priority for funding. But in a world where reviewers are so overloaded, not taking your one opportunity to fully engage their curiosity, seems to me like an opportunity missed.”

“Curiosity is the very basis of education, and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly.” Arnold Edinborough