FAQ: Questions on the review

The decision on whether to fund a research project is based on the principle of competition, centred around an expert review of the proposals submitted to the DFG. The decision-making procedure involves a separation of review, evaluation and decision.

Every year, the DFG consults some 17,000 reviewers from Germany and other countries. Selected by the DFG Head Office based on their specialist expertise, they assess the proposals on a voluntary basis according to scientific excellence, relevance and originality. The review is an important step of the procedure which a funding proposal passes through on the way to the final decision.

The person responsible for the subject at the DFG Head Office selects suitable and competent reviewers for the proposal who have the necessary overarching familiarity with current research in the respective field. Special care must be taken to avoid the appearance of conflicts of interest that can arise in connection with close scientific cooperation, competitive relationships, teacher/student relationships or mutual review processes.

Reviewers are selected by the DFG's programme officers responsible based on their subject-specific expertise and taking into account thematic, theoretical and methodological aspects. The DFG's programme officers possess subject-related expertise in the area they are responsible for, usually a doctorate in the discipline. If a proposal involves multiple disciplines or an interdisciplinary approach, the relevant research areas at the DFG Head Office coordinate with each other.

When selecting reviewers, the DFG's programme officers do not rely on a static pool of individuals but look for suitable reviewers within the relevant subject community, both nationally and internationally, for each new proposal received. 

The DFG Guidelines for Avoiding Conflicts of Interest contain a list of circumstances that may give rise to the appearance of a conflict of interest. In all funding programmes and at every stage of the processing of a proposal, the DFG Head Office checks whether a potential conflict of interest exists in relation to individuals involved. There are certain clear-cut instances which exclude a person as a reviewer, e.g. close scientific cooperation, teacher/student relationships and first-degree relatives. 

The DFG is not able to verify all circumstances that may give rise to the appearance of a conflict of interest, so it is always dependent on the assistance of all those involved. 

When they are requested to provide a review, reviewers are explicitly informed of the DFG’s conflict of interest criteria; when they submit their review they must confirm there is no conflict of interest. Anyone who does not disclose a possible conflict of interest is in breach of good research practice, which may result in proceedings being initiated against them due to scientific misconduct.

In order to be able to check and avoid potential conflicts of interest at the reviewer selection stage, the relevant information is requested in the respective proposal (e.g. current cooperation partners).

Care is also taken to ensure that there is no appearance of a conflict of interest on the part of employees at the DFG Head Office. For example, for at least the first three years after moving from a research institution to the DFG, Head Office staff are not permitted to process individual proposals submitted by their former colleagues or supervisors and, in particular, they are not permitted to select reviewers for such proposals.

You can write a confidential letter to the DFG Head Office expressing concerns about certain individuals reviewing the proposal, but this cannot be done in the text of the proposal itself. The DFG Head Office considers applicant requests for certain potential reviewers to be excluded. Such requests are taken into account if they are justified and do not rule out an unreasonably large number of people, thereby making it more difficult to ensure a high-quality expert review.

As a rule, applicants are not called on to propose reviewers. However, you can include a confidential letter with your proposal in which you suggest specific reviewers. The DFG Head Office then undertakes an independent assessment of whether to act on any applicant suggestions. The decision here is taken based on the criteria for the selection of reviewers and the DFG Guidelines for Avoiding Conflicts of Interest. If you would like to suggest reviewers, please bear in mind that the DFG Head Office never requests the services of a reviewer based solely on suggestions made by applicants, since the anonymity of the reviewers must be guaranteed. For this reason, such suggestions should only be made sparingly. 

At least two independent reviews must be obtained for all proposals. In order to avoid overburdening reviewers, an additional review is only obtained in justified cases. In the case of proposals which are highly interdisciplinary in nature or involve significant financial resources, and/or the prestigious Reinhardt Koselleck projects, the decision may be made to obtain three reviews by default. By way of an exception, a single detailed external review is sufficient in the case of proposals totalling up to €100,000.

In the case of so-called coordinated programmes, proposals are reviewed by panels. See also The decision-making process under coordinated programmes.

After the review stage, the reviews and the proposal itself are submitted to a review board. Review board members are researchers who have been elected by the communities. The review boards are responsible for undertaking a comparative evaluation of all proposals submitted in “their” subject areas and for ensuring the quality of the reviews submitted. The review board considers the reviewers’ comments and the relevance of their arguments. Bearing in mind the financial possibilities, the review boards prioritise the proposals and draw up a funding or rejection recommendation for each one. This comparative evaluation and the need to keep within the budget may mean that the recommendations made by review boards differ from the votes put forward by the reviewers.

The reviews are seen by the review board and the decision-making body. After the final decision has been made, applicants receive the reviews in anonymised form via the elan portal. The reviewers also receive the other reviews in anonymised form for information purposes. Nobody else gets to see or request the reviews.

Applicants are not informed of the identity of the individuals who write the reviews. This information is only accessible to the review board responsible and the decision-making body. It is up to the latter to ensure the quality of the reviews and examine any grounds for conflicts of interest.

Anonymity ensures that the reviews are entirely sincere and comprehensive. Reviewers are called on to assess the proposal neutrally, without feeling restricted in their expert judgement by professional links or potential social relationships.

Reviewers assess a proposal based on the following general criteria, which you will find in the General Guidelines for Reviews:

  • Quality of the project
  • Objectives and work programme
  • Applicants’ qualifications
  • Work and research environment

In the case of coordinated programmes, the quality and added value of the cooperation is also taken into consideration.

For some programmes there are special “Guidelines for the Review”: these can be found among the relevant forms and guidelines.

Anyone who forwards documents of their own accord without the consent of the DFG Head Office is in breach of confidentiality and good research practice. This may result in proceedings being initiated against them due to scientific misconduct.

The involvement of another person can be a useful exercise in order to expand one’s own subject-specific expertise and/or to introduce somebody else to the review process at an early stage of their career.

However, such a step is only possible with the prior written consent of the DFG Head Office subject to the following conditions:

  • The review must not simply be delegated.
  • The other person must have subject-specific qualifications and there must be no appearance of a conflict of interest.
  • The DFG Head Office forwards the proposal documents to the third party and records them in the database as a person providing the review. 
  • The primary reviewer who was originally requested retains responsibility for the content of the jointly prepared review.

Exception: If another subject area is to be involved, the process is carried out on an equal footing: in this case, the two subject areas are jointly responsible for the review.

No, the use of generative models in the preparation of reviews is inadmissible in any case due to the confidentiality of the review process. Documents provided for review are confidential; in particular, they may not be used 

as input for generative models. Anyone who does not comply with this rule is in breach of good research practice. This may result in proceedings being initiated against them due to scientific misconduct.

The principles of good research practice must be observed during the review process, too. If a reviewer violates the principles of confidentiality, for example, this is treated as a case of scientific misconduct.

Every individual is biased in different ways and to differing degrees. This applies in the area of research, too, and to researchers who strive for objectivity and evidence. 

The DFG provides its reviewers and committee members with materials to raise awareness of the need to mitigate bias, including a short film. These materials are also used in specific review situations as required.

Funding proposals submitted to the DFG are assessed based on scientifically relevant criteria alone. At the same time, any special and unavoidable personal circumstances pertaining to an applicant are taken into account exclusively in their favour (e.g. periods of childcare or periods of absence due to health), if details of such circumstances are supplied voluntarily.

In addition to scientific funding criteria, equity and diversity in research are also relevant to the review in the DFG’s coordinated programmes.

This decision is always taken on a case-by-case basis and also depends on whether the reviewers of the original proposal are available to provide a new review. In the event of a favourable yet critical review which contains very specific points of criticism regarding the original proposal, it may be desirable and expedient for the same person to deal with this proposal again.

Electronic Proposal Processing and Research Information Systems