A favorite phrase employed by some proposal reviewers is to accuse the PI’s of proposing a ‘fishing expedition’, meaning that the PI’s don’t really know what they are going to find but are hoping to find something. This is typically meant as a devastating negative comment: that is, one should have a more certain prediction of the outcome of the research or the research should not be done.
The term is used in the sense of casting about randomly and wildly in the hopes that something interesting will turn up, and isn’t meant as a comparison with people like some of my fishing relatives who have specialized equipment, technique, and knowledge, and who are reasonably certain of getting an interesting fish.
Some colleagues and I were discussing the ‘fishing expedition’ phrase recently, as we had all, at one time or another, received this comment in proposal reviews. We wondered why 'fishing expedition' had come to be used in such a negative way. Some (most?) research has a very uncertain outcome, and that is not necessarily a bad thing, as the pay off if something interesting is discovered is potentially great. [insert any one of a number of famous stories from the history of scientific discovery]. In many cases, even if the outcome is negative, something valuable is learned. These arguments, however, do not make for a very convincing proposal to a funding agency, even though we are all supposed to be doing transformative research these days.
In some cases, the phrase is accurately applied and highlights a potential problem with the research. Some proposals describe application of a huge array of poorly-described techniques that will be hurled at a problem in the hopes that something will emerge. This can make for a bad proposal.
I received the ‘fishing expedition’ comment in one of my proposal reviews in the past year. Although the overall proposed research was favorably reviewed, a reviewer singled out one of the more exploratory aspects of it for critical comment and recommendation that that part not be funded (because it was a fishing expedition). This kind of hedge trimming suggests that only the safest, most predictable work should be done, and any exploratory tangents should be lopped off early. In these cases, I typically try to find a way to do the exploratory part of the research anyway (e.g., using funds from small grants from my university).
A previous trend in proposal-trashing involved the phrase 'stamp collecting' -- i.e., mindlessly collecting and organizing data. What's the next hobby-related pejorative, once reviewers tire of 'fishing expedition'? My personal preference would be 'zorbing'. Any other suggestions?
5 months ago