Tools and Resources for Successful Research Grants at Duke

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When preparing to submit a proposal, it's important to understand the systems, processes, and roles and responsibilities of all parties involved in the submission well in advance of sponsor and internal deadlines. Indeed, institutions have come under increased scrutiny from funders for overlap, research security, and plagiarism in the proposal and award process. Duke has a wealth of resources and tools to help researchers to increase the chance of success and manage the risk associated with the submission process.  At the research town hall hosted by our the Duke Office of Scientific Integrity on June 1, more than 160 research faculty and staff learned directly from their colleagues about how they navigated the challenges of grant submissions as well as the many tools and resources that they can access to boost the quality and integrity of grant applications.

Geeta Swamy, MD, Associate Vice President for Research and Haywood Brown, MD, Distinguished Professor of Women's Health, opened the research town hall by emphasizing the importance of carrying a rigorous and ethical proposal development process. “How we prepare our grant proposals, how we utilize our resources and how we disseminate information is as important as how we conduct our research. We hope that we will provide you with the resources and tools to support you in this process”, Dr. Swamy said.

The Duke Offices of Research Development provide training, editing and toolkits

One of the key resource offices for the non-medical researchers is the Office of Campus Research Development (OCRD). “Our mission is to provide proposal development and proposal writing programming to help Duke faculty and the broader campus community submit high quality federally-funded proposals”, Sohini Sengupta, PhD, OCRD Director, said. “We ensure a high quality proposal particularly, if you bring us in early in the proposal development process, but we cannot guarantee success”, Sengupta added. Founded in 2017, OCRD has supported 289 proposals of which 69 have been awarded with a total amount of $118,298,357. Interested researchers can request to meet with the OCRD consultants for free by emailing Toolkits for numerous types of proposals are also available on the website. OCRD convenes site visits for center-type proposals when necessary as part of the proposal review process and provides events focused on funding opportunities and different proposal types. “Our Fall 2022 line-up will includes an NIH K99 Workshop (September), NIH K Award Workshop (October), NSF Grants for Faculty Workshop (November). We will also plan a NIEHS Workshop.”, Sengupta added.

Similar services are provided at the School of Medicine, by the Office of Research Development (ORD) directed by Joanna Downer, PhD. This office has supported over 170 complex research grant applications and “many dozens of individual investigator grants, totaling $798 million in awards”, as we learned from Chris Erlien, PhD, Senior Research Development Associate at ORD. Researchers can contact ORD if they need advice and guidance, but also for project management support, template preparation, or just for editing.


Scan your grant proposals in iThenticate before your sponsors do

A Scientific Integrity Associate at ASIST, William Krenzer, PhD, provided a live demo on iThenticate, a resource that can be accessed for free by all Duke faculty and staff. iThenticate scans manuscripts and applications against all published documents and reports matching text. It is a secure system, in other words, it does not store or share user’s scanned document content. “I can’t say this loud enough that text matching software is now being used by publishers and funding agencies to check proposals and manuscripts for matching texts. If they are using these tools to check your submissions, why wouldn’t you use the tool to check your documents before you submit?” - Krenzer asked rhetorically. He also specified that iThenticate “does not identify plagiarism – defined as the appropriation of another person’s ideas, processes, results or words without giving appropriate credit. Only a discipline expert or a misconduct review office can definitively identify plagiarism”.

The Medical Library helps with analyzing literature, citations and possible publication outlets

Megan Von Isenburg, Associate Dean for Library Services & Archives at the School of Medicine, presented tools and services that the Library provides for preparing proposals. “Our staff can analyze citations to identify strengths and opportunities or gaps in the literature to improve your research proposal and research itself”, Von Isenburg said. For example, the Library identified publications by department and division on pain management research, at the request of a project team, and helped find partners and stakeholders that otherwise could have not been considered. “Identifying everything in the literature can be challenging. We developed strategies to make sure that we are inclusive”, Von Isenburg added.

She advised grant writers to reach out to the Medical Library early and budget for specialized searching expertise for projects where a literature search is a primary deliverable.


The Data Management Planning Tool provides custom guidance for each agency and takes review requests

Planning for research data acquisition and management is another important requirement for submitting a quality research proposal. Most funders, including the NIH, beginning January 2023, require data management plans. In order to help researchers meet funder requirements, Duke Libraries provide guidance and tools customized for each funding agency.  “Researchers who access the DMPtool will find customized templates, links to Duke resources and can request a review to their data management plan within the tool itself”, Sophia Lafferty-Hess, Data Management Consultant for the Duke Libraries, explained to the audience. In addition to the DMPtool, the Duke Libraries provide workshops on how researchers can meet the data management requirements and find the right data repository specific to their disciplines, data type or funder. It also provides template language to include in a data management plan for depositing data in a repository.

Choose a good team and organize workshops to help members know each other

The members of the faculty panel shared their own experience with proposal development and how the institutional resources helped them in the process. Yiran Chen, PhD, Professor at the Pratt School of Engineering, talked about his role as a Director of the NSF AI Institute for Edge Computing Leveraging Next Generation Networks, which is a 5 year, $20 million effort across seven campuses including Duke, MIT, Princeton, Yale, Wisconsin, University of Michigan and NC Agricultural &Technical State University. Professor Chen emphasized the importance of a good team composition and especially of a good core team that will work on the grant proposal. Workshops could be hosted by the research leader in order to help team members know each other and familiarize with each other’s work and experience. Among other tips for successful proposal development, Dr. Chen mentioned the utilization of Duke resources and the need to start proposal writing early to have time for review and feedback, particularly from individuals who had been previously awarded.

Start 6 months to 1 year ahead of the deadline

An Associate Professor of Medicine in the Division of Rheumatology and Immunology, Dr. Megan Clowse, conducts research on the management of rheumatic diseases in pregnancy. She has also founded, a resource aiming to improve lupus pregnancy planning. Dr. Clowse emphasized the importance of starting the proposal 6 months to one year ahead of the deadline in order to allow time for a solid proposal, for reviews and changes. Also, she said that it is important for grant writers to know themselves and remain within their main research area. Bringing stakeholders targeted by the grant as collaborators, to provide their own perspectives as well as inviting colleagues for departmental reviews of the proposal was very valuable for her. “And allow enough time for data management or the sections on diversity. Do not leave them for the last weekend”, Clowse advised. Finally, the writing style can make a big difference: “Use clear sentences, avoid jargons and acronyms so the readers do not need to work very hard because they read many proposals. Use the Center for Data and Visualization Services because having a pretty grant is helpful in the review process”. Among the resources she used at Duke, Dr. Clowse mentioned the website and the grant writing courses offered by the Office of Research Development within the School of Medicine.

Communicate with the NIH program office early and often

Patricia Garrett-Peters, Senior Research Scientist at the Social Science Research Institute, talked from her 20 years of experience with grant writing (at UNC and Duke) related to early life adversity and child development outcomes. Her first advice for the audience was to communicate with NIH program officers early and often in order to receive support and feedback. Building a good research team is also essential, Garrett-Peters said. The Scholars@ Duke database is a great resource in this respect. She emphasized the importance of identifying multiple PIs with appropriate expertise. There are other Duke resources that can support this process: for example, the Biostatistics, Epidemiology, and Research Design (BERD) Methods Core helped her identify biostatisticians with relevant expertise while the Office of Campus Research Development (OCRD) provided her with the writing toolkits available for various types of grants (R01, R21, and R03). In order to build a good budget, Garrett-Peters recommended maintaining communication with the grants manager throughout the entire process, meeting with the grants and contracts manager “at least 30 days before NIH deadline (and even earlier if subcontracts)”.

The town hall ended with a Q&A session during which researchers asked specific questions about the many resources were presented. Which were only “an incremental part of all the resources available at Duke for preparing research grant proposals” as Sohini Sengupta, Director of OCRD mentioned in her talk.