Megan Columbus: Welcome to another episode of All About Grants. This is Megan Columbus from NIH's Office of Extramural Research, here today to talk to with Dr. Cathleen Cooper, who's the Director of the Division of Receipt and Referral in NIH's Center of Scientific Review. We're here today to talk to about covers letters and the appropriate use of cover letters. Cathy is an expert at this, as her office receives all of the applications that are submitted to NIH and so she looks at all the cover letters that come in. Cathy, can you start us off by telling us a bit about why an applicant would use a cover letter in their application?
Dr. Cathleen Cooper: So most times applicants won't need to use a cover letter anymore. Historically, applicants used cover letters to communicate to us if they wanted an application assigned to a particular institute or to a particular review group and to name the people who are potentially in conflict with their application and shouldn’t review it. But now that information is captured on an optional form called the Assignment Request Form and that form's present in every application packet available to our applicants, so most of the time they don't need to use the cover letter at all. That said, there are some instances where a cover letter is actually require, but they're uncommon. And that would include when somebody submits a late application, they should use a cover letter to let us know why the application is submitted late because we accept late applications on a case-by-case basis depending on what's provided in the cover letter. So we need the cover letter for that. If they plan to submit a video—for instance, our applications can't handle embedded videos and we don't authorize use of URLs to link to videos. So if someone wishes to submit a video in support of their application, it has to be done as post-submission material and they're required to put a cover letter on the application alerting review staff that that material will be coming in and need to be added to the file for that application. Another reason that they would need to put a cover letter on is if they are planning to generate large-scale either human or nonhuman genomic data as part of the study. And that is very important because that’s the way applications get flagged as potentially generating this kind of data. And then finally, there are a few cases where preapprovals are required for us to accept the application. A couple of examples of those would be if they have direct costs over 500K or if they're submitting an R13 conference grant. And we can't process those applications unless those approvals from the institute staff are included in the application and generally they're included as part of the cover letter. So those are the things that are actually required in a cover letter.
Megan: So a few caveats on what you said, when we talk about late applications I suggest applicants look very carefully at the late application policy that NIH has—
Cathleen: Oh, this is true.
Megan:—to ensure that that’s—that they have a reason that we might actually consider a late application. And when they're thinking about submitting videos, they should read the application instructions carefully to understand what needs to be included in the application that references that video to make sure they comply with those policies as well.
Cathleen: Right, that is also correct because there are some very specific requirements for the application in order to accept that video. And it's information that we need to accept the application, process the application, and review the application. And that's it.
Megan: So reviewers don't see it?
Cathleen: Reviewers don't see it. Program staff don't see it.
Megan: Okay, so it's limited to only a couple of people at NIH will see that cover letter. Do you have cover letters dos and don'ts, things that you have seen that you just wish people would or would not do?
Cathleen: Well, a big do is, use it appropriately. Don't put a cover letter in with the application if you don't need one. We occasionally see cover letters that are basically the applicant saying, "Here's my application, thank you for accepting it," signed Dr. Smith. Not necessary. The signing official does that for you when they click the button. We see very long cover letters with basically long descriptions of the project and perhaps there's information we need buried somewhere in that long letter and it would be easy to miss when they do that. And we have historically had a problem missing them when they've been embedded in this large narrative. And also assignment requests, some people are still putting the assignment requests in the cover letter. And since we have a form for that, that’s where we would like to see it. Plus, the benefit of the form is our electronic systems can extract those requests and enter them directly into our computer system so that we don't miss them that way. It's easier to miss in the cover letter. We'll still look in the cover letter, but that’s not where we want to see it. And then one last thing is don't request reviewers. Our review staff will pick reviewers, yet we see people in cover letters say, "Please assign these three reviewers to my application." And that’s not what we do, so just don't put that in there.
Megan: Good advice. Thank you for joining us today. From NIH and OER, this is Megan Columbus.
Announcer: As we just learned assignment request and study section conflicts are now included within assignment request form. The cover letter file is only used in certain circumstances. The instructions for cover letters can still be found within the SF-424 application instructions.