Oct 27 2017 Published by under Uncategorized

This happened a while ago (but within last 2 years). I'm posting it now, because I wanted to be sure it was not associated with my most recent study section.

The proposal was from an experienced PI. I don't remember, but it could have been 2nd R01 or at least a post K22/23 level person. The person was not just content with shaving the margins down to the minimum, using the smallest permissible font, and making captions on the figures


Image result for communist era block architectureAs I have often said, there is lots of argument about how your proposal should work. (see here and here and here, but remember rules have changed since some of these things were written). Certainly, do not push the legal limits. But I always feel that big enormous communist-era blocks of text are depressing and dispiriting to a reviewer. If I turn the page and see solid top to bottom, left to right text, and my heart sinks. I am going to have to work very hard to be your advocate for a proposal like this.


This proposal tried something I've not seen before. They added footnotes. FOOTNOTES. Who the heck in science uses footnotes? The footnotes were also in a


font. I figured they got another 1/2 page of text this way. The footnotes were "definitions" of concepts. Like hopping. Or justifications. Like why we used bunnies. There was a debate (oye, are there debates), as to whether we could dock the score for such a blatant disregard of format rules. The answer from the SRO, was no, we can't. But I know that no one wanted to be the advocate for this proposal.

I have always thought that page limits/word limits are your friend. They tell you how much information the reader is expecting. How much you should include. If it is not enough room to say what you think you need to say, you are trying to say too much.

Protip: don't do this. The study section was irritated, and, I believe (although was not explicitly informed) that the proposal got pulled.


4 responses so far

  • ecologist says:

    Interesting post. Who in science uses footnotes? I do. Frequently. More often in proposals and books than in papers, but still. They are an extremely useful and reader-friendly writing tool, when used properly. And if you write in LaTeX (and who would not?) they are easy to use and to adjust the type size in the footnotes to make them easy to read.

    Who else in science uses footnotes? You do. I count 3 of them in this blog post. Instead of little superscript numbers to identify them, you used "here" and "here" and "here". To me, putting in a live link in a piece of writing is the interwebs version of a footnote. It points the reader to some text that is relevant, but peripheral enough that the author lets you choose whether or not to pursue it right now.

    Holy crap. I've just written a moving defense of footnotes. Oh well. I'll close that with a recommendation to check out Imre Lakatos's book Proofs and Refutations for championship-level footnote use. The late Oliver Sacks is another skilled user.

    Your comment about squeezing in every last character that the rules will allow is right on. That is really not a good idea. A colleague recently asked me for comments on a proposal draft and my first complaint was that the pages were crammed to the absolute limit with blocks of text, and that this was not kind to the reviewers. "But I need to get all this material in within the page limits." Page limits are indeed your friend. We regularly think about organization in order to make things clearer to the reviewers (should I put this paragraph first or second? should I label this chunk a subsection or not? ...). Paying attention to typography is pretty much the same thing.

    • potnia theron says:

      you indeed are correct about *my* use of things that qualify as footnotes, though I usually do not think of links that way.

      Yet, in this proposal, these were not links (which are not permitted except in the biosketch) but real old-fashioned, down at the bottom of the page, under a line, with little numbers, footnotes. They were in a wretchedly tiny font. They were clearly an effort to circumvent page lengths.

      I think, on relfection, part of my objection to these is not only the page length thingie, but that they break up reading (like using numbered citations - you have to go to the back to see what they are citing). If they are important enough to include in the flow of the writing (because they specify an important definition), then include them in text. If you don't need to include them in the flow (because you are defining bunny), then why have the footnote?

      I can anticipate arguments for a category inbetween "needed" and "unnecessary", but this is a proposal, and not paper.

      And in the end, ask yourself: will this make the reviewer irritated with me?

      • ecologist says:

        If we leave aside the issue of tiny font sizes and attempts to skirt the page limits (both of which are bad all around), to me the good thing about footnotes is that they don't require you to go to the back of the manuscript to see what's in them. They are right there at the bottom of the page: a quick eyeflick down lets you decide if you need to check them out or not. Or perhaps later.

        They are also valuable as a form of defensive writing (very common in proposal writing, and somewhat common in paper writing ... unfortunately). That is, the text says "blah blah bunnies^1 blah". The footnote 1 at the bottom of the page can say all kinds of things about bunnies. Like .... 1. Bunnies are lagomorphs, although they are often mistaken for rodents. This distinction was emphasized by So-and-So (2009) in response to previous work confusing bunnies with mice. The evolutionary origins of bunnies have been shown to blah blah ". If you know from experience that some people have a thing about lagomorphs, or about the controversy that led to the important work of So-and-So, you are well advised to address those issues. But if most people could care less, putting it in the main text is just annoying to those readers.

        So, I think it's important to consider both ways to irritate the reviewer: make them look at the bottom of the page for erudite comments, or make them wade through marginally important text that obscures the main point in the middle of the page.

        And I agree about always considering, will it irritate the reviewer?

  • Ola says:

    I once wrote a grant for a foundation, where instead of numbered references and a bibliography list I put the author name, year, and PMID hyperlink in the text. That way the readers (who I assumed were reading on laptops/tablets) could go look if they wanted.

    Triaged (thankfully I didn't try it on the R01 I submitted around the same time).

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