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Several times my supervisor has asked me for my opinion on papers he is reviewing. I find this helpful as it encourages me to read things I otherwise would not, helps me understand how to review articles, and can lead to interesting discussions. Presumably my supervisor also finds it useful to have a second opinion or sometimes to act as a sanity check.

Recently I was wondering is this entirely appropriate. Not least because all the manuscripts for review have confidential for review only in bold at the top.

So my question is what are the legal/ethical issues with asking a student/colleague/supervisor's (depending on your position) opinion on a paper you are reviewing?

Note I'm not saying that they write the review just that you get them to read the manuscript and ask their opinion on certain points.

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Since it is "for review" I would say that sharing "for review only" is appropriate as it ought to produce a better review. And I suspect that your advisor may be doing this in part for the learning experience it gives you, and not because he/she thinks a good review is impossible without your input. –  Floris Jul 2 at 1:39
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@Parsa The linked question is about discussing with another assigned reviewer, which has different ethical and practical implications from discussing with another person who isn't an assigned reviewer. –  ff524 Jul 2 at 6:04
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@Parsa that could be an answer to this question, but it's still a different question. Also, the answers to the linked question cite the need for several independent reviews as a main reason for saying it isn't allowed, and that reason doesn't apply here. –  ff524 Jul 2 at 6:20
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If you can't talk about reviews, how do you learn how to review well? (Maybe that's one reason for why so many reviews seem to be bad.) –  Raphael Jul 2 at 10:56

7 Answers 7

up vote 11 down vote accepted

I think that this practice violates the usual "confidentiality agreement" that presents (formally, or customary) in a review process. However, I would agree that this is a common practice, and for some people it is just hard to work on their own, although technically you are supposed to give your own opinion on a paper you review.

I would say that if you really need to show the paper you review to someone else, you should check the following boxes:

  1. make sure the person understands that they are looking on a paper under review, and agrees to maintain the confidentiality, i.e.: not to talk about the ideas from the paper with someone else, not to produce own work based on these results until they are made public, etc.
  2. The actual material paper, and the file, do not change hands: do not send the pdf manuscript to your colleagues, do not leave the printed paper with them for a while.
  3. Ask specific question(s) about the paper, for which you need second advice, not just a general opinion. Remember, that you should review the manuscript yourself. Definitely do not use the second opinion to shake some work off your shoulders and go.
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the phrase "check the following boxes" was not meant literally, was it? –  CGCampbell Jul 1 at 15:26
    
@CGCampbell What I meant is that is good to follow (1) (2) and (3). Sorry if I used a wrong phrase for it. –  Dmitry Savostyanov Jul 1 at 15:33
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The first two points are important if the paper is not publicly available yet; what if the manuscript has been posted on arXiv for instance? The only confidential thing you have to reaveal is then your identity as the referee, and possibly the name of the journal. –  Ri49 Jul 1 at 15:55
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@Ri49 I assume that the paper is not made public yet, of course. If it is published on arXiv, why not simply ask someone's an opinion on this new interesting arXiv paper? –  Dmitry Savostyanov Jul 1 at 16:04
    
You might want to ask whether his opinion about publication in the particular journal, which pretty much gives everything away. Plus, it's not always very discreet to push the discussion on a given paper and it might very well become obvious that you are involved with the paper at some level. –  Ri49 Jul 1 at 23:25

The safest course of action would be to ask the editor: "My colleague Edna Krabapple has relevant expertise that would help me understand the paper and write a better report. May I share and discuss the manuscript with her?"

If the editor says no, you'd be justified in replying "Since I don't have the expertise to fully understand the paper on my own, I must decline the invitation to review."

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Isn't it less black and white? (I.e. someone's opinion may help.) If without a consultation I would not be able to review a paper, I would (and should) just decline reviewing. –  Piotr Migdal Jul 1 at 16:39
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I'm not saying that you must decline reviewing if the editor says no, just that you could (and that fact may make it more likely that the editor says yes). I agree that if you know up front that you can't review the paper without help, you should decline, but sometimes it is only after accepting the invitation that you discover a difficult passage. –  Nate Eldredge Jul 1 at 16:45

Normally "no". The issues range from privacy to priority to... If you feel like somebody else would be able to provide some valuable opinion you cannot provide yourself, you can always recommend the editor to consult that person before making the final decision on whatever particular issue you think he can help with.

The only exception I would make is when everybody already knows everything anyway (like when the copy of the same paper is on the arXiv and has been discussed in the relevant expert circles a few times already). Then it becomes a purely "tricky legal issue" with all common sense moral considerations removed and I usually just decide what to do on a case by case basis.

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This varies by field. In computer science, the members of the "program committee" of a conference are each responsible for reviewing some number of the submissions. However, they also have the power to unilaterally select sub-reviewers (sometimes more than one per paper) to provide input. How this is actually handled varies by venue, but sometimes can be as informal as sending an email to a colleague or graduate student asking them to take a look at the paper and provide input to the committee.

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they also have the power to unilaterally select sub-reviewers — Even this practice varies by sub-discipline. Some conferences have enormous program committees, with few papers assigned to each member, and insist that committee members review their own papers. Other conferences have smaller PCs and allow external reviewers. But even in the latter case, if an advisor is asked to review a paper by a PC member, the advisor isn't supposed to reveal this fact to their students. –  JeffE Jul 1 at 20:10
    
Conference subreviewers are a completely different situation. The situation there is completely analogous to a journal editor unilaterally deciding to appoint a reviewer; it is not at all the same thing as a reviewer unilaterally deciding to appoint somebody else to look at the paper. There is absolutely no expectation that a paper submitted to a CS conference will be seen only by that conference's PC. –  David Richerby Jul 2 at 9:28
    
Well, it differs from the situation with a journal editor in that it is also quite common that the PC member is the reviewer for a paper, and the queries to sub-reviewers can be quite informal. –  Aaron Jul 2 at 11:44

I am neather a reviewer of journal nor a professor at the university who has published various papers; but I as the question seemed so interesting, I searched over the net and found some references in which your question is exactly answered. Moreover, our own logic can also judge about the ethics of such question. As it is written in this webpage:

Confidentiality. Material under review should not be shared or discussed with anyone outside the review process unless necessary and approved by the editor. [...] Material submitted for peer-review is a privileged communication that should be treated in confidence, taking care to guard the author’s identity and work. Reviewers should not retain copies of submitted manuscripts and should not use the knowledge of their content for any purpose unrelated to the peer review process. Although it is expected that the editor and reviewers will have access to the material submitted, authors have a reasonable expectation that the review process will remain strictly confidential. If a reviewer is unsure about the policies for enlisting the help of others in the review process, he or she should ask the editor.

As it is written in the text, papers under review should never be shared or discussed with anyone unless approved by the editor. When we go to the logic of this, it is obvious that the reviewer should never discuss the paper with anyone. That is because the paper, the methodology, the outputs and the review process should be confidential. This is because it may happen that when the reviewer discusses the paper with a person who is not responsible with the review process, the chance that the innovative idea of the author be stolen and even submitted to another journal. Moreover, when the reviewer has access to the author by any mean and has the chance to ask his questions or ask the author to make some vague parts more clear; there is no need to talk about the paper with anybody else. Even, if there some minor questions exist for the reviewer, he can ask the editor or discuss with him about the topic.

In this link, the reviewer is also informed about the things he should pay attention to after reviewing a paper.

[...] Because most reviewers prefer to read hard copies rather than electronic text, the reviewer will probably have a paper copy of the manuscript. This should be destroyed immediately in a way that ensures confidentiality. The reviewer should keep a copy of the review itself until she/he is certain that the review has been received by the journal office and that the editor has no questions. This review should be kept safe and confidential until it can be destroyed (the reviewer will not need it; if the journal sends a revised manuscript for re-review, it will also send copies of the initial review).

When it goes to after review process, the text says that the reviewer even should destroy any hard copies of the manuscript after he finishes the review process and mentions that in the re-review process, journal will send him copies of the initial review too.
By reading this, we understand that the reviewer has not only the right to talk about the paper to a third person who is not responsible for the review of the paper, but also he has to destroy anything that may conflict the right of the author for being the review process confidential. In the next page of that document we read:

[...] Even after the paper is published, information on the review process should remain confidential. The reviewer should not reveal the identities of reviewers to the authors. This is especially important when there were differences of opinion between reviewers or when contentious issues were raised during the review process. Some authors remain angry about events that occurred during a review even after the paper is published.

So the reviewer is also responsible for other reviewers of the paper as the high levels of angriness may still exist because of the review process.

If a reviewer anticipates being in a situation where the paper will be discussed, the reviewer should read the final published version of the paper.

The point the review process should always be confidential is that much important that the reviewer even should pay attention to the discussions he has and should never talk about the content of the manuscripts. He is only allowed to talk and discuss about the published paper's content.

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Just to add evidence of a slightly different policy (used by the RSC):

6.0 Suggestions of Alternative Referees

The Editor welcomes suggestions of alternative referees competent to deal with particular subject areas. Such suggestions are particularly helpful in cases where referees consider themselves ill-equipped (in terms of specialist knowledge) to deal with a specific paper, and in highly specialized or new areas of research where only a limited number of experts may be available. If, in such a case, the alternative and the original referee work in the same institution, the manuscript may be passed on directly after informing the Editor.

In other words, there's no way around reading the policy of the journal in question.

And, by the way, when my supervisor asks for my opinion about a manuscript (or a part of the manuscript) I assume that he did inform the editor.

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The next thing to expect is that your supervisor will publish under his own name a paper that you wrote, or will file for a patent on something that you invented or will otherwise arrange to get credit for YOUR work and expertise. You need to fire your supervisor (by getting another job-- preferably with a competitor).

This happened to a friend of mine: he invented a new kind of transistor, but when the patent was filed it listed his boss as the inventor and he as the co-inventor. This thing was important in power regulation because it had a much lower voltage drop than ordinary transistors. My friend complained, and was told by the boss, "That's the way we do things here." He left his badge with the guard on the way out and never looked back. He did OK, built a company and never had another boss (other than his wife, of course). Along the way, he built a portfolio of more than 20 patents.

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Seems like quite a leap from "Supervisor asks for my opinion on a paper he's reviewing" to "supervisor steals supervisee's work." I don't really see the connection. –  ff524 Jul 2 at 6:02
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@ff524 Heck, I'd argue its indicative of the exact opposite - bringing a student into a collegial activity, though admittedly in a questionable way due to the anonymity of reviews. –  Fomite Jul 2 at 6:24
    
"Competitor"? What's one of those? –  David Richerby Jul 2 at 9:30

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