Biochemistry and Molecular Biology

University of Texas Medical Branch


Research Coordinator's Corner, Dr. David Konkel

March 2006

Good News on Electronic Grant Submission! Yes, for once there's good news – and it's that NIH has delayed the conversion for R01 grants to electronic submission (and the new SF424 R&R forms) until the February/ March 2007 receipt dates. Hopefully that means that UTMB will have the more user-friendly InfoEd software in place before R01grants must be submitted electronically, as the more I hear about other folks' experiences with the PureEdge "tool," the more user-unfriendly it becomes. The bad news is that there are apparently no plans to push the conversion date for the R21/R03 programs back from June/July in a similar fashion. Cynics might say that NIH expects so many problems in that first large-scale test that they want an extra four months to recover (What, me cynical?) In any case, here's the full text of the NIH Guide announcement.  

Page cross-referencing and electronic submission – One important goal in writing your grant application is to make it as reader-friendly as possible. That's why you should avoid jargon, keep your use of acronyms and abbreviations to a manageable level and provide an alphabetized abbreviations list for those you do use (see below), and allow facile navigation from one part of your application to another by detailed cross-referencing, not merely "see below," "as discussed above," or even "in our Preliminary Studies (Section C)." Until the advent of the electronic submission process, there were two possible methods – cross referencing by page number, or using detailed section headers e.g. ("See Section C1b);" each approach had its advantages, disadvantages, and advocates. However, in the electronic submission process the various sections (which will now be numbered 1, 2, etc., rather than the current A, B, etc) must be submitted individually, and without pagination; the entire document (which still cannot exceed the standard page limits for sections 1-4, usually 25 pages) will be assembled electronically and paginated upon receipt. The problem, of course, is that there may be some variation in the exact page breaks, so I think use of detailed section headers will be the only way to go. Incidentally, the conversion from numbering to lettering for the major sections of the research plan means that Aim 1 will no longer be the topic of subsection 1 of the various major sections, but rather of subsection a, unfortunately making the correlation less intuitively obvious. While discussing user-friendly cross-referencing, let me also suggest that Appendices should be individually labeled and referenced (Appendix 1, Appendix 2, etc.), not merely referenced less helpfully by "(See Appendix)."

The Abbreviations List revisited – I’ve often mentioned the advisability of including an abbreviations list near the beginning of your application, to prevent reviewers who forget the meaning of an abbreviation/acronym from wasting their ti me (and increasing their level of aggravation) looking for the spot where a particular abbreviation was defined. The best format for such a list in the text is in running fashion: "abbrev 1, definition 1; abbrev 2, definition 2;" etc. – alphabetized by abbreviation. But where to put it? (Most of what follows, until the final suggestion, is a reprint from my March 2004 column). One clever place in a revised application is at the very end of the three-page Introduction (response to criticisms), as there the list doesn’t count against your 25-page limit for the research plan (Sections A-D). Otherwise, the list is best placed near the beginning (few things are more frustrating than finding the glossary when you reach the end of a book, without having realized it was there!) However, Russell recommends that your Specific Aims (Section A) and the first (significance) paragraph of the Background and Significance (Section B) not extend past the end of the second page, so it’s probably best to put the abbreviations list as a footnote at the bottom of page 3 if the significance paragraph would spill over onto the third page were the list at the bottom of page 2. In either case, to save space the list is best presented as a footnote in a slightly smaller font than the main text (I suggest Arial 10), and should rarely take up even one-quarter page – if it does, you're probably using too many acronyms/abbreviations! One new idea is to include a second, full page version as Appendix 1 – in this case, the list should be columnized, with the abbreviation in the first column and the definition in the second (obviously much longer) one. The advantage of this approach is that reviewers may remove the columnized version from the Appendix for easy reference while reading the application. However, you can't only have the list in the Appendix, lest someone in the Center for Scientific Review decide that you're thereby using the Appendix to evade the page restrictions, and so return the application unreviewed.

A New Feature: Tech Corner – At Regino's suggestion, this will be an area for technical tips to ease the process of application development, generally in Microsoft Word or Adobe Acrobat. If you have a problem, send it in and I'll try to find the answer – if I can't (no guarantees!) I'll at least reprint the question, and hopefully another column reader will be able to help out with a suggestion. I'll start out with two suggestions of my own this month.

Abstract page: unprotection revisited – The online version of the Abstract/performance site/personnel page (still listed as page 2, even though it's now pp. 2-3) is protected, so that formatting (bold, italics, etc.) and most symbols vanish when you cut and paste into the gray typing area. In a recent column, I passed on the tip from the Russell/Morrison grantwriting book that you can solve this problem by using "Tools|unprotect document." A couple of readers e-mailed to complain that this didn't work for them. What I unfortunately neglected to mention is that after unprotecting, you have to delete the gray typing area before the cut-and-paste will properly preserve your formatting. After deleting the gray area, place your cursor right between the left-hand border of the abstract box and that little circle-in-a-square "finis" indicator, and paste. Sorry for the oversight!

How do I mark changes in a revised submission? NIH requires that unless changes are so pervasive that they can't usefully be highlighted, they should be marked in the text, ideally by a line in the margin(s). The low-tech way to do this has been to use a marking pen and straight-edge, as trying to do it in Word with "line draw" is both tedious and ineffective -- the vertical line is tied to a spot on the page, not the text, and so often "floats" much like a figure (I'm sure you all know how much fun that is!) The low-tech ruler-and-pen approach simply won't work with electronic submissions, however. Regino has discovered a clever approach – use the "outside border" feature (the ion looks like a squared bulls-eye, up near the crayon-like highlight icon) to mark the right margin of a paragraph in which there's been a substantive change. Note that this only works for entire paragraphs, so don't try to indicate minor changes in wording or addition of one new reference – soon everything would be marked!

That’s it for this month – if you're planning a submission for the June/July deadline, now is the time to see me if you wish to schedule a small grant-preview session to vet your specific aims before you start fully developing them. Remember to allow extra time for electronic submission if you're planning an r21 or R03 application. And please don’t forget to send in your technical grant-preparation questions for next month's Tech Corner!

-- Dave Konkel x24074; E-mail: (copyright 2006).