Find out how we fund high-quality scientific research based on peer review.
Key players in the peer review process
The peer review process is modelled on the system used by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the U.S. federal agency for biomedical research. It is based on two players with fundamental, separate roles:
- research programme managers (PMs) at the Telethon Scientific Office manage the entire process, from preparing the call for proposals to submitting the final report on the evaluation procedure. They are responsible for selecting the reviewers with most expertise in each research field, i.e., the scientists who will evaluate the projects, and for organising evaluation sessions;
- the Scientific and Medical Committee (SMC) plays the key role in Telethon’s evaluation process, with the support of two external reviewers selected specifically for each research project.
The selection process: a six-stage fund allocation process
Stage 1: Initiation and validation
The PMs oversee the announcement of the competition, examine the applications and exclude any projects that do not meet eligibility or administrative requirements or are not relevant to the mission of Telethon. Once the projects have been validated, the PMs assign them to reviewers with specific expertise in the field.
Stage 2: Triage
Validated projects undergo an initial assessment, or triage, conducted by three members of the Medical and Scientific Committee chosen by the PMs, who evaluate the scientific merit of each one. At this stage, the evaluation regards the Core Project, the part containing the most significant information. The three members of the SMC score each project and the projects are then ranked according to these scores. Only projects with scores that exceed a threshold value defined by the Telethon Scientific Office can be selected.
Stage 3: Full Review
Projects that pass the triage stage undergo a full evaluation of all parts of the application (Core Project and Supplementary Contents). At this stage, the same three members of the MSC who evaluated the project in the triage process review the project again, this time in its entirety and with the support of external reviewers selected by the PMs. The external reviewers are foreign scientists, or Italian scientists who do not work in Italy, who have no conflicts of interest with respect to the project to be evaluated. For each competition, Telethon contacts reviewers in its existing database, which currently comprises around seven thousand experts, as well as new experts identified in the scientific literature of reference. The PMs select the external reviewers so as to guarantee a specific and detailed assessment of the topic of the proposed project. At the end of the Full Review, the projects are ranked on the basis of the scores assigned by the reviewers.
Stage 4: Plenary discussion
The final decision to fund projects is made during the plenary meeting of the Medical and Scientific Committee. The proposed projects compete against one another. They are presented by the members of the Committee who examined them and the debate is open to all Committee members. This discussion among colleagues is a means for reducing the errors, oversights or any positive or negative bias on the part of the reviewers. In addition to scientific merit, which is the main evaluation criterion, the Committee also considers the direct or potential impact of the proposed projects on patients’ quality of life, or whether they might make useful contributions to the development or improvement of a therapy or method of diagnosis. At the end of the plenary discussion, the projects are ranked on the basis of the scores assigned by all the members of the SMC. Lastly, starting with the highest-ranking projects, those that could qualify for funding, depending on the actual availability of funds, are agreed upon with the SMC.
Stage 5: Approval of funding
The Board of Directors of Telethon meets to allocate funding, following the ranking order defined by the Medical and Scientific Committee, in line with the available budget.
Stage 6: Final report
For each project submitted, the PMs at the Telethon Scientific Office draw up a document summarising the selection process carried out, which also includes the reviewers’ written comments and a summary of the discussion. This report is important because it bears witness to the transparency of the system and is a training tool for the researcher who submitted the application.