Selection of research fellowship recipients by committee peer review. Reliability, fairness and predictive validity of Board of Trustees' decisions
In science, peer review is the best-established method of assessing manuscripts for publication and applications for research fellowships and grants. However, the fairness of peer review, its reliability and whether it achieves its aim to select the best science and scientists has often been questioned. The paper presents the first comprehensive study on committee peer review for the selection of doctoral (Ph.D.) and post-doctoral research fellowship recipients. We analysed the selection procedure followed by the Boehringer Ingelheim Fonds (B.I.F.), a foundation for the promotion of basic research in biomedicine, with regard to the reliability, fairness and predictive validity of the procedure - the three quality criteria for professional evaluations. We analysed a total of 2,697 applications, 1,954 for doctoral and 743 for post-doctoral fellowships. In 76% of the cases, the fellowship award decision was characterized by agreement between reviewers. Similar figures for reliability have been reported for the grant selection procedures of other major funding agencies. With regard to fairness, we analysed whether potential sources of bias, i.e., gender, nationality, major field of study and institutional affiliation, could have influenced decisions made by the B.I.F. Board of Trustees. For post-doctoral fellowship applications, no statistically significant influence of any of these variables could be observed. For doctoral fellowship applications, we found evidence of an institutional, major field of study and gender bias, but not of a nationality bias. The most important aspect of our study was to investigate the predictive validity of the procedure, i.e., whether the foundation achieves its aim to select as fellowship recipients the best junior scientists. Our bibliometric analysis showed that this is indeed the case and that the selection procedure is thus highly valid: research articles by B.I.F. fellows are cited considerably more often than the “average' paper (average citation rate) published in the journal sets corresponding to the fields “Multidisciplinary', “Molecular Biology & Genetics', and “Biology & Biochemistry' in Essential Science Indicators (ESI) from the Institute for Scientific Information (ISI, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA). Most of the fellows publish within these fields.