CIHR Reviewers’ Guide for Fellowship Awards

Table of Contents


On behalf of CIHR, we would like to thank the reviewers for agreeing to serve as a peer review committee member. The success of the peer review process is made possible by dedicated people like you who generously give their time and expertise. Your efforts are greatly appreciated by CIHR and the scientific community.

The purpose of this document is to provide instructions on the peer review process specific to the CIHR Fellowship Awards program.

Peer Review at CIHR

Information on CIHR’s objectives, governance and policies; an outline of the roles and responsibilities of peer review committee members; and the policies, principles and procedures for peer review of applications can be found in the CIHR Peer Review Guide for Training and Salary Awards. It is important that reviewers become familiar with this document, as well as the present document, before starting the reviews.

Summary of the Peer Review Process

The CIHR Fellowship Awards program uses an individual structured review process, using the online ResearchNet platform. The review process is completed in one stage: an individual review and rating of an assigned set of applications (there is no committee meeting). All eligible applications received will be assigned to three (3) reviewers.

There are five (5) peer review committees for the Fellowship Awards program. Each application received will be assigned to the committee with the mandate that most closely aligns with the applicant’s training, credentials and area of research. The link to the committees’ mandates is listed under the section “Read the pertinent documentation”.

Reviewers are asked to follow the step-by-step instructions below to successfully complete all peer review tasks:

  • Step 1: Read the pertinent documentation
  • Step 2: Identify conflicts of interests
  • Step 3: Conduct in-depth review of assigned applications
  • Step 4: Submit reviews and ratings on ResearchNet
  • Step 5: Be prepared for a re-review

Step-by-Step Instructions

Step 1: Read the pertinent documentation

The peer review process for this program is described in detail in this document. It is essential to read the document and be familiar with it. It is also important to read the following:

Step 2: Identify conflicts of interests

To identify conflicts of interests, reviewers are to follow these steps:

  • Log into ResearchNet.
  • On the home page, click on the link of their assigned committee to open the main task list.
  • Complete the task “Conflict of Interest and Confidentiality Policy and Reviewer Consent” (once completed, it will “open” the other tasks).
  • Open the “Manage Conflicts/Ability to Review” task.
  • For each assigned application, use the information provided to indicate if they are able to review or if there is a conflict. If there is a conflict, CIHR will reassign the application to another reviewer.
    • Note: As other reviewers within your committee will also declare conflicts, there is a likelihood that you will receive additional application assignments. The calibration of workloads will be maintained to ensure a fair peer review process.

Step 3: Conduct in-depth review of assigned applications

Once conflicts have been identified, the full content of the remaining assigned applications will be available under the task “Conduct Reviews”. Reviewers should then follow the steps below.

3.1 Review the adjudication criteria

Reviewers should first become familiar with the adjudication criteria for this funding opportunity. They can be found at the end of this document in Appendix A. This appendix provides an interpretation of each criterion and identifies which elements of the application to review for that criterion.

It is important to note that, for this program, expectations should differ based on the research area/discipline of the candidate. For example, publication productivity can vary when comparing a biomedical researcher, a clinician or a social scientist; where a health professional with a minimal amount of publications may have a publication record of superior quality than a biomedical researcher with numerous publications.

It is also important that reviewers take into account the career stage of the candidates to better assess and calibrate their set of applications (e.g. direct entry to fellowship from PhD vs. entry after several years outside academia). Please note that, while CIHR has removed the eligibility requirement that all applicants be within 3 years of their PhD, this is not intended to encourage additional time spent in postdoctoral positions. Reviewers are asked to think critically about whether the postdoctoral position for which an individual is applying for funding will have the desired career benefits and impact compared to other applicants.

3.2 Read the assigned applications

Reviewers should read all of their assigned applications in detail before rating any of them; and jot down notes to capture their impressions. The CIHR Fellowship Awards Reviewer Worksheet in Appendix B provides a template that they may wish to use. This worksheet is strictly for reviewers’ own personal use and will not be filed with CIHR.

It is important to note that many candidates will likely be conducting research outside of the reviewer’s research specialty. Therefore, reviewers should review the application with a generalist’s perspective and assess the overall quality of the research proposed by the candidate, using the appropriate adjudication criteria.

To ensure that all applications are treated equally, reviewers are asked to base their evaluation only on the content of the application and not to complete any additional research (e.g. publications via PubMed, etc.).

3.3 Unconscious bias

As reviewers read the applications, they should be alert to unconscious bias related to gender, cultural (including Indigenous and geographic bias), age, language (including official language and minority communities bias) and institution and remember that:

  • Career interruptions for child bearing and raising can influence opportunity for knowledge production, publications and related variables;
  • Different disciplines and environments offer different opportunities for research contributions, publication and other research related activities;
  • The reputation of institutions should not affect the reviewer’s view of applicants or their research training environment;
  • It is important to take steps to mitigate bias in reviewers’ thought process about differences in culture (e.g. Indigenous Peoples of Canada); and,
  • A point should be made of respecting Canada’s linguistic duality by recognizing the value of research in French and the value of research on Francophone minority communities.

To learn more about unconscious bias, reviewers are encouraged to complete the related learning module.

3.4 Rate their assigned applications

Reviewers are then asked to rate their assigned applications against each of the adjudication criteria described in Appendix A, using CIHR’s rating scale (below). It is particularly important that the full scale be used.

Descriptor Range Outcome
Outstanding 4.5 – 4.9 May be Funded
Excellent 4.0 – 4.4
Very Good 3.5 – 3.9
Good 3.0 – 3.4 Not Fundable
Average 2.0 – 2.9
Below Average 1.0 – 1.9
Not Acceptable 0.0 – 0.9

Applications rated below 3.5 are not eligible for CIHR funding, including those from partnerships/priority announcement programs.

3.5 Provide a written assessment for each assigned application

Reviewers are asked to provide a short written assessment (limited to 4000 characters) for each assigned application that supports their ratings. The written reviews will provide constructive advice to applicants to assist them in improving the quality and efficiency of the proposed training.

Comments should focus on the strengths and weaknesses of the application in consideration of the adjudication criteria:

  • Keep it simple;
  • Use familiar descriptors, such as those from the CIHR rating scale, that align with your rating;
  • Include justification, context and an explanation of your comments, if applicable, for each topic introduced;
  • Be clear and concise;
  • While brevity is acceptable (e.g. using bullets), express complete thoughts and ensure the length is sufficient enough to inform the reader;
  • Use objective and non-inflammatory language;
  • Carefully avoid language that might be construed as sarcastic, flippant, arrogant or inappropriate in any way.

The applicant will receive the review as it is submitted by the reviewer. For this reason, reviewers are to refrain from inserting scores in the comments and should not identify themselves in order to ensure the confidentiality of the review process. For additional guidance on conducting high quality reviews please refer to CIHR’s Review Quality Expectations, as well as the Conducting Quality Reviews learning module.

3.6 Flag issues for CIHR’s attention

Any concerns regarding eligibility, ethics, human stem cells, etc. should be reported to CIHR staff immediately for follow-up and should not be noted in the written comments. For the full list of potential issues, please refer to the CIHR Peer Review Guide for Training and Salary Awards. These issues should not be considered as criteria for evaluation, except as they may impact on the scientific quality of the application. Concerns may be expressed by email to (note that this email is strictly meant for Peer Review activities).

Step 4: Submit reviews and ratings on ResearchNet

As the reviewers perform their evaluation, the reviews can be saved as drafts by selecting “Save draft copy” on ResearchNet. This allows reviewers to make changes at a later time. However, in order to submit the reviews and ratings to CIHR, reviewers must select “Submit Final Review”. Afterwards, no modifications will be possible.

It is important for reviewers to respect the deadline provided by submitting their reviews and scores via ResearchNet by the date specified via correspondence with CIHR staff responsible for this program. Delays in the peer review process will jeopardize CIHR’s ability to release decisions to applicants by the published date. If, at any point in the process, a reviewer determines that he/she may not be able to submit his/her reviews on or before the deadline, he/she must contact CIHR staff as soon as possible.

Step 5: Be prepared for a re-review

Once all the scores are submitted, CIHR will perform a discrepancy review by calculating the final rating for each application. CIHR will then identify applications which are at risk of an unfair decision because of a wide spread between the reviewers’ scores. In such cases, CIHR will ask reviewers to reconsider their initial assessment and resubmit scores. To do so, they will be asked to get in contact with each other to discuss the application.

For this purpose, it is recommended that reviewers keep their working notes on file until a few weeks after the competition results have been announced.

Ranking of applications

Upon completion of the peer review process, CIHR will generate a ranking list of the applications. Ties between overall scores are often found within these competition-ranking lists. CIHR has a process in place should the number of ties found in the fundable range exceed the overall budget allocated for the competition. The ties are broken by comparing overall ratings of specific evaluation criteria in the following order:

  1. Achievements and activities of the candidate
  2. Research Training environment
  3. Sponsor’s Assessment of the Candidate’s Characteristics and Abilities


An important component of the peer review process is the review of the committee’s effectiveness and functioning, and feedback on policy issues that may have arisen in the course of the process. This feedback provides an opportunity for CIHR staff to address any concerns of the committee members and for staff to record comments on the peer review process as part of CIHR’s ongoing efforts to maintain an effective and high quality peer review system.

Since there is no face-to-face or teleconference meeting, the reviewers’ feedback should be communicated to the committee coordinator by email at (note that this email is strictly meant for Peer Review activities).

Appendix A – CIHR Fellowship Awards Adjudication Criteria

There are three adjudication criteria for the Fellowship program, they are as follows.

Criterion Notes/advice to reviewers

1. Achievements and Activities of the Candidate (60%)

Note: It is important that reviewers take into account the career stage of the candidates to better assess and calibrate their set of applications (e.g. direct entry to fellowship from PhD vs. entry after several years outside academia). Also note that longer time spent conducting postdoctoral work (e.g., more than 5 years) may not necessarily result in a higher probability of obtaining an academic position.

a) Training Expectations

Weight in overall score for this sub-criterion: 10%

This section provides an overview of how the candidate's previous training relates to the present proposal and elaborates on career goals.

  • Assess the clarity and logic of the candidate's plans for a research career and the relevance of the proposed training.
  • Description of how the training they expect to acquire will contribute to their productivity and to the research goals they hope to achieve, and how this award will enable them to establish themselves as independent investigators.
    • Applicants have been asked to describe how their previous training (academic or otherwise) will benefit their current/upcoming postdoctoral work.
    • Applicants have been asked to justify the need for further time spent in a postdoctoral position (if relevant) and how it will contribute to their career goals.
    • Applicants have been encouraged to consider through careful career planning to assess their career aspirations, establish career objectives and to identify strategies to develop research, technical and professional skills in order to attain those objectives.
  • Justification of why they chose the proposed training location and what they expect to learn from the training experience.
  • Justification if they are planning to hold this award in the same research environment, and/or with the same supervisor as where they completed their doctorate degree. (i.e. research institution or its affiliate). Note: applicants should not be penalized when the choice of research environment is duly justified (including and not limited to personal and professional reasons).

b) Proposed Research Project

Weight in overall score for this sub-criterion: 10%

This section provides a research project summary which should be completed in collaboration with the proposed supervisor(s) and be written in general scientific language.

  • Determine if the proposed project is adequate to the candidate given their education, experience and interests. Is the project the right balance of challenge, importance of the research question and feasibility in relation to the candidate's experience and training? Note: it is not the project per se that is being assessed. The project should be viewed as an integral part of the candidate's development as a researcher.
  • The proposed research project summary should:
    • Include the specific hypothesis of the research and describe the candidate’s role on the project;
    • Provide a concise account of the subject matter, an overview of each part of the research plan, specific project aims and the methodology;
    • Reflect the significance of the project.

c) Honours, Awards and Academic Distinction

Weight in overall score for this sub-criterion: 10%

This section provides a list of official recognitions (i.e. citations, distinctions, Honours and Prizes/Awards) received by the candidate, including training awards (competitive or not, monetary or not, declined … etc.)

  • Assess the number, importance and breadth of the candidate's official recognitions and special distinctions relative to their education, training and work experience.
  • Note the length of time required to complete academic programs and any indications of special academic distinctions received.
  • Determine relevance to research and whether the recognition is regional, national or international.

d) Publications and Related Research Achievements

Weight in overall score for this sub-criterion: 30%

This section provides a list of publications such as papers, articles, chapters or books (particularly peer-reviewed) as well as conference presentations, abstracts and evidence of practical impact such as patents or copyrights. Look for:

  • Research funding entries whereby the applicant was formally recorded as co-applicant, co-investigator, co-knowledge user, collaborator, decision maker, policy maker, principal applicant, principal investigator or principal knowledge user. Note: some applicants enter training awards (e.g. CGS-Master’s and CIHR Doctoral awards) in this section but they should be assessed as part of the “Honours, Awards and Academic Distinction” criterion.
  • Evidence of research achievements relative to opportunities to date. Bear in mind that opportunities to publish may vary according to research discipline and life course (e.g., health professional career, time spent raising children, etc.).
  • For publications, observe the number of co-authors and the position of the candidate's name in the authors list (note that the importance of this position can vary depending on the discipline, etc.).
  • The candidate's role in publications and their estimated percent contribution to the work, as well as the type of publication (e.g., paper, article, chapter, book, etc.)
  • Try to get a sense of the entire body of work and its likely impact. Note the publication dates and relate them to the candidate's education and training. Consider the list of abstracts as an indication of conference presentation activities.
  • The candidate's other professional activities. Consider any patents or copyrights to which the candidate contributed.

Note: Do not consider publications listed with a "Submitted" status.

2. Sponsor’s Assessment of the Candidate’s Characteristics and Abilities

Note: It is important that reviewers take into account the career stage of the candidates to better assess and calibrate their set of applications (e.g. direct entry to fellowship from PhD vs. entry after several years outside academia). Also note that longer time spent conducting postdoctoral work (e.g., more than 5 years) may not necessarily result in a higher probability of obtaining an academic position.

Weight in Overall Score: 20%

In this section, three sponsors provide an assessment of the candidate. These assessments should come from individuals under whom the candidate has trained, who are familiar with the candidate’s characteristics and abilities and/or who have had a good opportunity to assess their potential for research. Keep in mind that candidates have no opportunity within the application to provide a justification for their choices of sponsors. With the Sponsor Assessment Form:

  • Look for evidence from the sponsors that the candidate exhibits the characteristics and skills that correlate with research career achievement.
  • Examine the sponsor's assessments, recognizing that positive comments are common while negative ones are not.
  • Read the supporting text carefully, taking note of the extent to which the sponsors justify their scores.
  • Look particularly for indications that the sponsors perceive the candidate as an investigative type, that is, someone whose thinking is critical, questioning, original and independent.
  • Indications that the sponsors perceive the candidate as both energetic and capable of being highly focused.
  • If the candidate has had an opportunity to conduct research. Look for mention of creativity in setting research goals, designing experiments, developing new methodologies, interpreting findings and presenting results in writing.
  • Consider the following:
    • Do the detailed comments support the ratings outlined on the first page of the assessment?
    • How long has the sponsor known the candidate?
    • What is the relationship of the sponsor to the candidate?
3. Research Training Environment

Weight in Overall Score: 20%

This section describes elements of the research environment that will contribute directly or indirectly to the quality of the candidate's research training experience that are available. It should demonstrate the commitment of the proposed supervisor(s) and their institution to support the development of the candidate's research project (funding, facilities, equipment, etc.) and professional development.

  • Look at the supervisor(s) research experience, qualifications, honours and awards. Examine their publication record to get a sense of productivity, impact and collaboration taking into consideration the different disciplines and their impacts on these.
  • Determine if the research environment, including space, facilities, and personnel support available is appropriate.
  • Determine if the supervisor demonstrates a commitment to develop and/or facilitate the development of the trainee’s research, technical and professional skills and networks.
  • Get a sense of the resources available and the overall level of activity by reviewing the information on grants currently held, noting the extent to which the supervisor(s) was either listed as a principal or co-applicant for the funds.
  • Review the supervisor(s) training record. Note for each person listed the level of training, length of time with the supervisor(s), degree received (if applicable) and current position.
  • Your assessment should take into consideration the career stage and discipline of the supervisor(s). Your expectations of mentoring by a recently-established investigator should differ from your expectations of mentoring by a long-established researcher.

Appendix B – CIHR Fellowship Awards Reviewer Worksheet

The following table is meant to guide reviewers in the evaluation of the application. It is strictly for their working notes and will not be filed with CIHR.

Applicant Name: ___________________________________ Application #: __________________

Criterion Rating Reviewers Comments
1. Achievements & Activities of the Candidate (60%) a) Training Expectations (10%) Strengths:
b) Proposed Research Project (10%)
c) Honours, Awards and Academic Distinction (10%)
d) Publications and Related Research Achievements (30%)
2. Sponsor’s Assessment of the Candidate’s Characteristics and Abilities (20%) Strengths:
3. Research Training Environment (20%) Strengths:
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