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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. 

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