My plea failed; I’m curious why.

So, I put up a post a few days ago asking for people’s assistance making their old grant and job applications available. This turned out to be, as the kids say nowadays, an epic fail. I got no emails from anyone on the subject (well, William Stein replied affirmatively when I asked if he was OK with linking to his page), and one comment pointing to Dror Bar-Natan’s proposals which have been online for a long time (those of you who are paranoid about putting too much math information online should look at his webpage; it is a model of radical openness).

And now I’m really curious: that post had 400 website views and 1200 syndicated views since it went up. So on the order of 1600 people (of course, that’s not very accurate, but fine, whatever, 1000), at least a few hundred of whom are professional mathematicians who have looked for an academic job or applied for a grant before, looked at that post and decided not to put up their documents up or email them to me to put up on my webpage (or to email me about existing posted documents). Probably if you’re reading this now, you read that post and decided not to do that. And now I’m curious: why not?

Which is not to suggest that I can’t imagine a downside, but I’m curious what people think it is.

18 thoughts on “My plea failed; I’m curious why.

  1. I read your post, decided it was an awesome idea, and realized I have exactly NO successful grant applications. Once I get them, I’ll be very happy to publish them — in fact, I wish more people were radically open.

  2. Some reasons not to publicly post a grant proposal:

    1) There are some good ideas in there which you would like to have a chance to work on yourself before sharing them with others any more than necessary.

    2) At the same time, many projects suggested in the proposal may not work out, and you don’t want to embarrass yourself or set up expectations that will be disappointed.

    I think that for most people, these considerations would outweigh any altruistic desire to help young people learn to write grant proposals.

    You might want to publish something like a grant proposal if you want to encourage other people to work on your research program, or if you want to give an introduction to what you are doing. But in this case you would want something slightly different from a grant proposal (less boasting about results from prior support and discussion of broader impact, more careful exposition of the rest).

  3. Sure, but are those the reasons you don’t want to post your grant proposal? (Assuming you’ve ever submitted one, which is a bit hard to judge when you’re anonymous). I ask this not just to guilt-trip people, but because I’m genuinely curious how people explained the decision to themselves.

  4. I didn’t post mine because I found something else to do that distracted me from the momentary intent to do this. But now that you’ve asked twice, I reorganized my research page to show past application materials.

    If anyone have any great ideas about things mentioned in my research statements, please consider yourself invited to tell me about them. :-)

  5. This is anonymous #3 again. Yes, I have successfully applied for grants. And yes, at some point I considered posting my grant proposal online in order to give an introduction for graduate students to what my research is about and where it is going, but then decided against this for the reasons I mentioned. I like openness but have found that some boundaries are needed to avoid the aforementioned problems (namely people stealing my ideas or being disappointed in me for not having solved problems I said I was working on).

  6. I think that it’s as simple as that no one wants to be the first in the water. In principle I wouldn’t mind, but I didn’t want to draw special attention to my grant proposals because I don’t know that I did a very good job. (Even though I was funded — of course more goes into the decision than whether the proposal was well-written.) As “Anonymous” explains, it could be embarrassing for any of several reasons. If I knew that my grant proposal would appear along with other people’s grant proposals, then I might well be fine with it.

    In fact, beyond saying that I wouldn’t mind in my case, I think that your request is very constructive and could be useful to other mathematicians. But evidently it takes more finesse to properly gather this information than to just make a blog post. As long as the release of this information is voluntary, it’s a personal decision, and yet the way that you asked for it was off-the-cuff and impersonal.

  7. In my case – it was simply that I didn’t realize from reading your post that you actually was asking people to specifically do something.

    (Reading it again – it still isn’t clear to me that you were asking me to send you an e-mail or comment about something.)

  8. Another issue is that old grant proposals are almost always out of date. When I read a description of my research program as I envisioned it in 2009 (the last time I wrote a grant application), I’m filled with thoughts along the lines of “I can express that in a much better way now” or “Ack, that conjecture turned out to be false!” The pain is minor enough that I’m willing to send a copy of my proposal to anyone who asks for it (which has been 5 or 6 people over the past year), but major enough that I’m reluctant to post it on my web page.

    I actually did have it on my web page for a while, but I took it down when I had a more current research description to replace it with. (As it happens, the more current one was the document that I wrote for my tenure file.) In general, I usually have my most current research description on my web page, which sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t come from a grant proposal.

    In fact, this issue would be almost entirely circumvented by creating a separate “old application materials” page, as you have. As for why I haven’t done that, I think laziness is the most accurate answer.

  9. “that post had 400 website views and 1200 syndicated views since it went up. So on the order of 1600 people…”

    Since multiple visits are multiply counted and there are all sorts of occasional visits dividing these numbers by 10 will still lead to an upper bound.

    It is still not clear to me why job application material or grant proposals of one person would be helpful to another.

  10. I would like to second Scott’s comment. When I read you first post, I thought about it for a while, then got distracted. If I don’t get distracted again, I will post my past proposals soon and send you the link. I expect that if others are going to do it, they will take a while too.

  11. Two reasons not to post online (yet share in person):

    1. Context: it’s easier to explain the specifics of your application, including how much background to provide, the detail to demonstrate etc., if you can also describe what the specific granting agency is asking for. For example, the goals of NSF calls are rather different from the NSERC Discovery program. One funds a project, the other a research program. Simply posting my NSERC grant online doesn’t help someone that isn’t familiar with the program. Describing the agency-specific context takes more time than I have.

    2. I’ve served on several granting panels, and run a peer-review system for a few years. In the both instances, we were asked to post instances of successful applications, so applicants could see what we were looking for. The one time I did this, the outcome was discouraging. Rather than use it as an example, we received a lot of proposals which were very similar. And then we had to explain why ‘my proposal had similar sentences on HQP to this other proposal, but mine didn’t get funded’. We ended up shifting the onus back onto applicants. The guidelines are there, figure it out.

    This is not to say these materials are not helpful for those that are genuinely curious about how the process works. My suggestion is to ask senior colleagues who apply to the same granting agency, and work in similar areas, in person. Also, ask your program officers to provide feedback *before* you submit. Finally, consider volunteering to serve on review panels in the granting system you apply to. You’ll see a whole wealth of examples, and hear the deliberations of the committee. I personally learnt a lot from this exercise.

    Only schmucks would refuse to show you their old applications in person, but many prudent folks would hesitate to post them online.

  12. Why not to make a FOI request to see all the (funded NSF)
    proposals in maths. Doron’s recent opinion piece is a ready-made
    justification of public interest.

  13. @nomail: One reason is that FOIA requests aren’t free for the requester — you have to pay for photocopying costs and the resulting labor. (Just because NSF has electronic copies of everything doesn’t mean they will respond to the FOIA request by sending you a bunch of PDFs…. You can probably count on receiving a bunch of big boxes full of ppaper.) For copies of all the funded NSF proposals in math you’re probably looking at thousands of dollars.

  14. So now I would have to read other people’s successful grant proposals and research/teaching statements or otherwise I would be at a disadvantage compared to those who did their homework.

    You get the grant or the position not because you’re better than me but because you copied from other people and I didn’t.

    Write you own damn proposal. Don’t be a copy cat.

  15. The point of reading other people’s grant proposals isn’t to copy them (that’s an excruciatingly stupid thing to do; my grant proposal got me a grant because it proposed research that I was well positioned to work on; I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world who could plausibly submit it), it’s to learn how to structure a grant proposal. So, essentially, your position is “I have to learn to write a grant proposal properly because other people might; that’s not fair,” which I don’t have a ton of sympathy for. But even if you take that position, lots of people are getting to look at other people’s old proposals through the back channel (i.e. just asking them), so it’s not fair to the people who can’t/won’t ask.

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