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I am an MSc Student of Computer Science at a department that is considered to be in the top ten CS departments in the world (QS Rankings here). I am telling this, just to let you know, that I have some good enough (I guess) general background in Computer Science. However, I am just an MSc student, not somebody who is a specialist, knows a lot of things including the current research conducted in a specific field.

I was asked today, from an editor of a journal, to review a paper. I would loved to do that, but I will probably respond negatively, as I can understand the danger of saying yes to a paper that does not actually show a good amount of research just because I am unaware of the current research and/or expertise on that field.

However, I can understand most of the papers in Computer Science and I found mistakes some times that were reported to their authors, who admitted that their papers had some mistakes. Therefore, I may be able to find some errors, but I am afraid that I may be unable to say whether a paper fully justifies and in a correct way what the authors want to show.

My question is: What should I respond to the editor provided the above?

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I was wondering how one would determine the top ten universities in the world. Then you very helpfully edited to add a link clarifying that you mean a top 10 CS department. I think it would be better still if you clarified that you mean "top ten CS department" rather than "top ten University". –  Pete L. Clark Apr 19 at 19:43
    
@PeteL.Clark Thanks a lot :) I am doing it now :) –  Jim Blum Apr 19 at 19:44
    
I think the quality of the journal might be suspect. Ignore the mail. I have received such mails before. –  sriisking Apr 19 at 22:20
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@sriisking: If so, this earlier question I asked could be relevant. –  Ilmari Karonen Apr 20 at 5:51
    
I think Msc is sometimes research based anyway but I was also kind of wondering about this as an undergraduate. Any chance you could include undergrads in the question so I can find that one out too? –  Magpie Apr 20 at 16:48

3 Answers 3

up vote 26 down vote accepted

This is a good question: at what point in one's academic career should one begin refereeing papers?

I think the first order of business is to make sure that the editor knows you are an MSc student. In fact, inquiring into why you were chosen to referee the paper seems reasonable to me: the answer may help you determine whether you are qualified. Perhaps for instance your thesis advisor got the request and passed it along to you. That's a good situation for you: you can read the paper for correctness (in my experience, assuming the requisite base level of competence and understanding, the younger the referee, the more likely she is to conscientiously read and check a paper for correctness) and then solicit your advisor's help in determining the appropriateness for the journal.

In fact, no matter what this is a good opportunity to talk to your advisor: she will be the best person (aside from you) to help you determine whether or not you are "ready" to competently referee the paper. If she says no, you should probably turn down the request. If she says yes, see if you can get her help on the higher level issues that you are rightly concerned about.

Let me also say that you have to start refereeing papers sometime (or you become someone who never referees papers even into the later stages of their career: I know such people, and although so far as I know they landed in that situation through no fault of their own, it is clearly an undesirable state of affairs for the community at large), and no matter what age or rank you start, you will still have to wrestle with the issues of knowing what standards to impose. (For that matter, sometimes I get a referee request from a journal that I have never read or even heard of before. I try to ask the editor for more information but have sometimes just been told things which amount to "Use your best judgment." So I did.) There is a lot of subjectivity in the refereeing process, and though you may feel less confident about your opinion as a very junior academic, in reality it is far from clear that what you do will be worse than what some more experienced person would do!

Shorter Version: You need to get a sense of whether this is a job that you can handle competently in a reasonable amount of time. Don't be afraid to ask for guidance in determining the answer to this. Being a master's student does not disqualify you in any obvious way. If you can do it -- without interfering too much with your other responsibilities, of course -- then you probably should. It will be a valuable learning experience.

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Thanks a lot Dr Pete. I will follow your advices, as they seem very good and reasonable to me. Thanks again. –  Jim Blum Apr 19 at 20:17

I don't think it directly matters what point you are in your education or what university you are studying at. It is more important that you have written and published some papers yourself in the field. You need to have had the experience of having your own papers reviewed before you can review someone else's, just so that you know first hand what is expected of you. It is not common for someone at MSc level to have that experience but if you have then that's fine.

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I reviewed at least one paper before I had published myself. I don't remember the exact details, but roughly, the editor asked me to review it on the understanding that my advisor would give a lot of guidance; which he did, and it was a helpful experience. –  PLL May 18 at 10:32

(Just to add a point that’s not yet been mentioned.)

One thing you can do is to explicitly mention you your own level of knowledge in the review. I recently began one review something like "This work is correct and interesting, and as far as I know it's new, but I don't know the literature on the topic thoroughly enough to be certain of that."

Indeed, in my field, most reviews come with a field on the score-sheet to give your own level of confidence, usually on a scale of 0 (null) to 4 (expert). I would be uncomfortable reviewing anything where I’d rate myself 0 or 1, and for a 2, I would want to check with the editor before accepting the review, and see if they would prefer to ask another reviewer. But from an editor's point of view, a well-thought out review from someone inexperienced but conscientious — especially when that inexperience is known, and can be allowed for — may well be better than a hurried review from an expert, and is certainly better than no review at all.

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