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Home No. 1: Paying for Letters of Support: Standard or Inappropriate?

Mar 14

No. 1: Paying for Letters of Support: Standard or Inappropriate?

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Paying for Letters of Support: Standard or Inappropriate?

Reader question: I’m desperately trying to find people to write letters of support to include with my grant application. A consultant I plan to use on the project agreed to write one, but he wants to bill me at his usual rate for the two hours he says creating the document will take. Also, he wants to bill another two hours as a “success bonus” if I actually get funded. Are these common practices? Are they appropriate?

Expert Comments:

These practices are not particularly appropriate, but they likely do not violate any regulations.

In letters of support, authors (consultants) express exactly that — their support for your proposed research. They are supporting its significance, feasibility and execution plan, as well as your qualifications. If they are also involved in the research, then the letter should document their commitment to the proposal.

Generally, anyone writing a letter of support — especially someone expecting to be listed as a co-author for any resulting publications — will do so freely as a part of the research’s preparatory work.

Paying someone to write a letter of support, along with a bonus if the proposal receives funding, does not necessarily affect the author’s credibility to objectively assess your research and commit to it.

At the same time, it may signal how this collaborator will behave when the research begins. That is, he may:

  • Expect and demand excessive payments

  • Hold work or results hostage to payments

  • Most troubling, he may base his output on what you want him to say (that is, what you are paying him to say), rather than on truly objective and rigorous science.

If you deny his request for payment, he may still agree to write the letter of support. If he does, and the project is funded, he will probably recover the costs of writing the letter (and the “bonus” he feels he deserves) during the research.

If you choose to pay the consultant for the letter of support, do not use funds from the award because he will not perform the “work” during the award period. Therefore, this would not be an allowable cost for most federal and private sponsors.

Finally, your comment about “desperately” trying to generate letters of support leads me to suggest that cultivating a stable of mentors, supporters and potential collaborators should be an ongoing activity. Such a network can prove particularly helpful, especially during proposal submission.

Expert Comments by Joe Giffels, MAS, Assistant Vice President for Academic Affairs, Director of the Research Integrity at the University of Maryland. He is the author of Clinical Trials: What You Should Know Before Volunteering to Be a Research Subject, published by Demos-Vermande, and served as guest editor for a data management special edition of Science and Engineering Ethics, published in December 2010.

Comments (17)
executive director, COMAP
written by sol garfunkel, March 16, 2011
Nonsense! Asking for payment for a letter of support (and considering paying for one) is completely unethical. True, you will likely not go to jail, but this subverts the proposal process in a significant way. It is certainly legal to charge a 'little old lady' for walking her across the street, but do you really have to ask someone if they think it's appropriate? Nonsense.
written by JH, March 16, 2011
Stay away from such a "collaborator" or consultant. This smells like trouble 10 miles upwind. I would not trust a single result from someone who is trying to pull that stunt on me and this is also no basis for a collegial and enjoyable collaboration. Science should foremost be fun, not a bureaucratic business. But then, I am probably considered old-fashioned by now for still living in the idealistic 70s and 80s...
Senior Grants and Contracts Administrator
written by Bill Volk, March 16, 2011
My concern is the comment "I’m desperately trying to find people to write letters of support . . . . "

Is he a very junior or new investigator that has been involved in very little research and if he is junior or a new investigator where is the Mentor in this process?

Or are there other and bigger issues to be addressed in regards to this particular individual research?

There is quite a few unanswered questions or should I say unasked questions before a quality response can be offered.

As for 'paying' up front and then again when/if awarded sounds like subtle blackmail to me. This brings into question the ethical standards of the consultant.
Professor of Biostatistics, UMDNJ
written by wj Shih, March 16, 2011
I think the real issue is on the 'consulant' role, not about writing the supporting letter. As a biostatistican, I have been frequently asked by other investigators to be a 'consultant' in their grant applications and to write a letter of support. My many years experience taught me that 'consultant', unlike 'co-investigator', is a passive role, very very few investigators have really come back to consult me after the study has received the fund. Of course, I will not serve as a consultant again when the renewal time comes for those grants that never consulted me previously. I think 'window dressing' is an issue for grant application that lists 'consultant' with little or no budget and shows no prior collaboration records. As a reviewer for grants, I can spot the window dressing consultant easily and discount this part of application.
Prof of Education
written by Michael Beaudoin, March 16, 2011
Surely we all have a sufficient number of professional colleagues who are genuinely interested and supportive of our respective research efforts and who are willing to craft a letter? If someone is motivated by profit, drop him/her off your list. We already have too much corporate greed in this country, without having to put up with it among our own kind!
Professor of Biobehavioral Health, Penn State
written by Byron Jones, March 16, 2011
Wow! Maybe I should start charging for writing letters of recommendation for my pre-med students!

Seriously, run -- don't walk away from this consultant.
written by Fred Schaufele, March 16, 2011
Not only is it completely unethical for the writer of the letter of support to ask for payment, it is completely unethical for the writer of an application to to supply a 'purchased' letter of support. You can't control that this unethical person asked for money in return for a service, but you can retain a high standard of ethics by not including such a letter.

I also agree with the writer who laments the absence of mentoring here.
written by Bitter postdoc, March 16, 2011
I find some of these "idealistic" responses advising "pay no money" rather hypocritical. In my situation, I will not have to pay money to my advisor for a reference letter, but I have to work my a-- off running personal errands for her and serving as general flunky and lacky, or I will remain in her good graces. So, one way or another,some faculty extract payment for their letters of support.
Senior Grants and Contracts Administrator
written by Bill Volk, March 16, 2011
To Bitter Postdoc

Use this as a lesson in how not to treat your research assistants and administrative staff once you become a full fledge researcher.

Some MD and PhD treat those they consider less than their equal like dirt, and yes I've worked with some of them. And I've reported more than one to Human Resources, School of Medicine Legal and to whomever is their reporting senior. Everyone reports to someone. Creating a hostile work environment and personnel servitude is illegal at best and not tolerated in the work environment due to possible legal action.

You have options, exercise them . . . . that includes moving to another lab and/or another institution.

These type of work environments exist because individuals are afraid to speak up.
written by Fred Schaufele, March 16, 2011
The respondant 'Bitter Post-doc' is confusing apples and oranges. This conversation is not about Bitter post-doc's expectations surrounding mentorship except, from the original query, to ask why a mentor was not helping an apparent junior faculty member.

The specific question here is whether a 'paid for' letter of support is appropriate to submit in a grant application. It is not. The argument that you are compensating that colleague for his/her time is dubious. In ethical considerations, avoid the perception of malpractice as much as you avoid malpractice itself.

When you attach your name to anything, a paper or a grant proposal, you are attesting as to the unbiased truth held within that communication. You are responsible for the quality of what you provide as supporting material, be it experimental data or supporting information. If you were found to have willingly presented suspect supporting information, it would warrant an investigation with possible sanctions.
written by Dept Chair, March 16, 2011
I am rather surprised that we have not heard a peep from some Director of Compliance. This situation is, or comes close to, a violation of Research Integrity. After all, what is the difference between a more-or-less coerced Support Letter and a BRIBE? Maybe the compliance professionals are too busy concentrating on "conflict of interest" and Medicare danger zones.
Director for Research Administration
written by Kia Kornas, March 17, 2011
Yes, I did compliance previously..
25 years & I never came across this. You can't trust anything this guy consults you on, so step away. It is completely unethical and were I to know that a letter of support was purchased in one of the grants I submit for the institution, I would not submit it before a serious internal review by other faculty. But, since the writer is desperate to find letters maybe we are talking about private sector and a new research company? The rules are different there. We need more info to weigh in appropriately BUT if you are in private sector and have no mentorship network, and you need to buy even the support letter, then how objective will your results be? You must be critical of your own decisions if that is the case.

Bitter post-doc may be too bitter to think clearly on this one. He seems a victim of a mentor abusing her position for personal gain esp. when the post-doc mentions running personal errands. That should be reported to the Chair and on up the chain of command, or the post-doc should leave, in my opinion.

written by David E. Harrison, March 17, 2011
I have written hundreds of letters of reference, and read at least that many. What makes a reference letter strong is proof in the letter that the person recommending you knows you and is familiar with details of your work. The letter should give specific examples of how you are creative, or hard working or whatever.
I have never even thought of asking for money. IF I do not know a person well enough, or cannot write a positive letter, I explain why. Isn't this the way everyone deals with letters of recommendation?
I agree with all the people who said - asking for pay for a recommendation stinks like rotten fish - do not deal with this person.
Also, if I were a reviewer and found that a letter of recommendation was written for pay, this would be a point against the grant.
Assistant Professor
written by Eric Blalock, March 17, 2011
Add to the top of the recommendation in the application packet "this letter writer was compensated X$ for writing this letter and will be compensated X$ more if the application is successful"

Full disclosure of this practice would "greatly reduce enthusiasm" of many, if not most, reviewers. Thus, from the application's perspective, the letter, fully disclosed, would end up more of a hindrance than a help. The letter, not fully disclosed, would be deceptive.
Former Director of Sponsored Research
written by LA, March 17, 2011
“Bonuses” paid to consultants for their contributions to writing grant proposals is considered an unethical practice in the grantseeking. See National Society of Fundraising Executives Code of Ethics.

Moreover, “bonus” paid to anyone on a federal grant is unallowable and will lead to an audit finding.
written by The Enforcer, March 23, 2011
Just wanted to chime in on Bitter post doc's comment and responses. In an ideal world, he/she could leave but that is rarely an option. Where would they go? What is the reason? Who can you get a recommendation from (the advisor you are leaving?) Another professor in the department (no way!!). I was in a similar situation with my advisor during my doctoral experience. There are few avenues a grad student or post doc can take if they are being abused. You risk losing your funding, which is almost too easy as there is a long line of others who can step in and play sycophant better than you. No one, not human resources, not the graduate school will do anything significant to a tenured, funded professor.
Assists with all aspects of applications for corporate and foundation funding
written by Academic admin, biomed PhD, April 14, 2011
"I’m desperately trying to find people to write letters of support to include with my grant application." --WHY is this? Is everyone you know too busy preparing their own grants for June, out of town, or unwilling to support you/your research for whatever reason? If it's the latter, you got bigger problems. In the first two cases, make it as easy as possible for others to write a letter. Provide your current CV, your relevant publications, relevant text from your proposal draft, and even press releases about you/your work in the email requesting a letter. State clearly what you need support for and how the author's expertise/ relation to you or your research would make for a strong letter. Reduce barriers (save time/effort, define scope of potentially "overwhelming" request) by laying out your specific needs/funder's expectations for the letter and doing the leg work (compiling materials, highlighting relevant info). If asking your dept chair or others who have written letters for you in the past, point out/remind which former request was similar to the current, so that an old letter can be recycled. Always be grateful up front!

"A consultant I plan to use on the project agreed to write one, but he wants to bill me at his usual rate for the two hours he says creating the document will take." --What TYPE of consultant is this and what for? A fellow scientist evaluating you, your work, your proposal and potential would/should not expect to be paid here. A "professional" consultant, independent or industry contractor may consider the letter billable work towards your project. And from a business perspective, that makes sense. (Like an engineer/ architect would bill for sketching initial site plans to assess feasibility of building before preparing actual construction drawings.) Then the author better be identified as a professional subject-matter expert/ consultant paid for his professional assessment. Like an expert witness in court, business consultant, or lawyer.

"Also, he wants to bill another two hours as a “success bonus” if I actually get funded." --Say NO to the bonus! That's a clear conflict of interest no matter who the consultant is.

If you're at a university, find mentors and seek assistance from your department office or chair, colleagues, grants office(s). If applying for non-federal funding, contact your Office of Corporate and Foundation Relations (or similar name). If you're in industry, make connections with outside scientists, potential collaborators. If you are relying on support from people such as disgruntled or uncooperative PhD or postdoc advisors, don't burn bridges, repair burnt bridges, AND find other supporters. Finally and obiously, if time is the issue, plan ahead in the future and request letters with plenty of lead time, make back-up plans. Good luck!

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