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I am currently a post-doctoral researcher at some institute. My Ph.D. supervisor, from my former institute, keeps asking me to review papers that come to her for review. I am pretty sure that this is because I am good at a particular topic which is not her expertise. She has coauthored papers on the topic but she is not an expert there.

I have two problems with this. First, since I am not her student now, she should stop doing this; I am an independent researcher now. Second, I feel that this takes away credit from me. She could tell the journal that I am a better person to be a reviewer and this will benefit me since I am still young. Currently, I use my skills, time and energy to review papers for which she earns credits and I lose a chance for the same. Should I tell her this or is it normal in academics? If I should, how should I?

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    It's not clear to me that there is anything wrong with this situation. Sub-reviewing is common. Do you have reason to suspect that she is taking credit for your reviewing effort or otherwise misleading people? Unfortunately, reviewing is thankless work. I'm not sure what credit you're expecting to get for it.
    – Thomas
    Jan 28, 2018 at 16:38
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    She [sh]ould tell the journal that I am a better person to be a reviewer indeed - ask her to do so, since you prefer to be in direct contact with the editor, for learning etc, and to build your reputation as a reviewer. No need to burn bridges here, at this point at least.
    – Mark
    Jan 28, 2018 at 16:45
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    Even as a student, you should be acknowledged as "co-reviewer" at least. The practice is rather common, but anyone that actually reviewed paper needs to be acknowledged... Jan 28, 2018 at 17:07
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    Repeat after me: "Please tell the editor that I would be happy to review the paper."
    – JeffE
    Jan 28, 2018 at 20:12
  • Is she also asking you to review revisions?
    – Allure
    Jan 28, 2018 at 20:26

5 Answers 5

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This person was your advisor, right? So she is your ally, mentor and general fan, no? You can be straight with her.

Phone call:

Hi Susan. About the paper you sent me yesterday to review. I'm flattered/honored that you thought of me for reviewing it.

(Pause in case she wants to say something at this point, which she probably will.)

The thing is, Susan, I'm at the point now where I need to start establishing myself as a reviewer in my own right.

(At this point she may figure it out and state the desired conclusion. If not, spell it out for her:)

Could you pass my name on to the editor as a possible reviewer for papers about (description of sub-field)?

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No it should not be normal. It is the decision of the editor to pick a specific reviewer. As a reviewer, you are supposed to keep the manuscript confidential. While i would see that this can be argued if you ask somebody working in your organization and reporting/being supervised by you, i think giving material to somebody whom you do not have direct control over in another institution is a pretty bad violation of the usual journal policies.

There are a number of bad situation which could arise from this

  • You actually having a professional relation to the peroson which you review (without your former professor knowing)

  • You telling your new boss about this, and he/she deciding to do politics using that knowledge (delaying etc)

  • You plagiarizing the paper, without the editor being able to track how that ended up there (since nobody knows about it)

  • You asking for changes to include references to your papers (innocent, since the editor team wont catch it...)

So no, beyond you not getting credit, i think it is a pretty shady thing.

(Added after comment): There are essentially two options, which depend on the mindset of your supervisor.

  • You explain what I wrote and tell that this makes you uncomfortable - you don't have to tell about her taking credit for your work, so it is less personal.

  • You inform the editor about the incident, pass your review, and ask the editor to be confidential about it. (I would imagine that they may just remove you former supervisor from their list)

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  • I think this answer addresses why reviewing papers for your former advisor is a bad idea, but not how to deal with this situation in a way that OP's professional relationship with their former advisor isn't damaged in some way.
    – Mad Jack
    Jan 29, 2018 at 1:00
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Should I tell her this or is it normal in academics? If I should, how should I?

You are quite reasonable to be concerned about your former supervisor taking advantage of you in such a way. I cannot say what you “should” do, but in my opinion any of the following ways to respond would be appropriate:

  1. You can tell her that you are happy to consider reviewing papers in your area, but that as an independent researcher intent on building your professional credentials you will only consider such requests coming from an editor, so she should feel free to pass your name along as a suggestion to the editor for any paper she thinks you are qualified to review.

    (Note the precise language here: you don’t want to say that you are “happy to review the paper”, only that you are “happy to consider reviewing the paper” - since she is not an editor and is only trying to freeload on your work, it’s not really her business whether you will ultimately agree to do the review or not; moreover, if you tell her that you agree to do it, you open the way for her to try to manipulate you further by saying that since you agree, it’s more convenient/accepted/normal/[insert some other bullshit excuse here] for you to send the review through her.)

  2. You can tell her that you are busy and cannot take on the review at this time. Repeat as needed until she gets the message and stops sending you these requests. (This is a white lie so not really my preferred option, but still a reasonable and socially accepted way to handle the situation.)

  3. You can tell her that you cannot take on the review without explaining yourself. Repeat as needed.

As for the risks of angering your former supervisor with each of these responses: obviously you need to apply your own judgment based on your acquaintance with her, but I have this to say: even a person who tries to manipulate you or take advantage of you in a small way can still be a decent person, and can actually be impressed if you stand up for yourself in a graceful way and put them in their place if they have crossed a line of appropriate behavior. If the former supervisor is some sort of vindictive psychopath and you depend on her for future career success, you might be better off not doing anything that will upset her, but if she is a normal person who just has some flaws, I think the risk of damaging your relationship with her by asserting yourself in a polite and respectful way is very small. Conversely, the option of being a pushover and continuing to allow her to freeload on your work and talents also carries its own risk that as a result she will not have much respect for you and will not be very motivated to help you with your future career.

Hope this helps, and good luck.

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Your concerns are fair enough to tell your former supervisor that you have your own things to do.

Try to reply the emails with a polite tone, explaining her that you do not have time for a while because you work on other papers. If she keeps sending you papers or insists on a level of harrassment, then there are two options left.

  1. You can keep on reviewing papers once in a while and your problems remain.
  2. In your own words in the comment to Bob Brown's post, you can burn the bridges.

Burning the bridges with an abusive person (note that in this case, your former supervisor abuses your experience) is not very dangerous in my opinion. What is way more unpleasant is if your future depends on doing somebody else's job.

One life-pro-tip I always adore is

Do not ask a person to do something for you as a favor, if the person does it for a living.

In other words, if you were in a software company and your former manager asked you write some patches, when would it worth not burning the bridges? Software development is a paid job, and it is not ethical to ask for someone to do it for you. Same as reviewing papers. Only difference is, you are not paid by money, but academic reputation.

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Let me be sure I understand... editors send her papers to review, she sends them to you to do the actual work, then she returns them to the editors as her work. Is that correct? If so, you have two options.

You could, the next time you get such a paper, decline immediately and without making excuses. "I'm sorry, I cannot do this, and won't be able to do so in the future." If you're afraid of burning bridges, you might find a likely excuse, such as press of work.

The "nuclear option" is to accept the next paper, review it, and return it directly to the editor (assuming you can identify the publication and editor) with the notation that "Dr. X asked me to review this." You absolutely will burn bridges if you do that, but you won't get any more papers from her, either. Edit: In the comment below, Dan Romik is correct that what I suggested is passive-aggressive. However, if my summary in the first paragraph of the answer is correct, then the former supervisor is engaging in serial plagiarism. A report to the editor is equally nuclear, equally certain to burn bridges, and likely equally effective. (Before anyone says it's the same thing, I want to point out that responses to other current questions here take the position that reporting academic misconduct is not only appropriate, it is required. Of course, those answers apply to students... )

Edit: It was suggested in a comment that I add what happens if one burns bridges with one's former supervisor. That, of course, depends entirely on individual circumstances. The best generalization I can reach is that, the further along one is in one's career, the less damaging it is likely to be. If OP will depend on this supervisor for a recommendation following the post-doc, then it may be necessary to allow that former supervisor to continue to take advantage, or to fabricate excuses. If, at the other extreme, OP is the star of the lab and is certain of a tenure-track position at the same institution after the post-doc, then burning that bridge has less chance for harm.

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    Is it a good idea to burn bridges with the former supervisor? Sounds scary.
    – Peaceful
    Jan 28, 2018 at 15:04
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    @MadJack : before or after completion? : this case is presented after...
    – Solar Mike
    Jan 28, 2018 at 15:42
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    This seems needless to me. The supervisor may not even realize that @Peaceful is unhappy about this. If reviewing is too much, just decline the reviews -- it happens all the time.
    – Thomas
    Jan 28, 2018 at 16:45
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    @Thomas Trouble is, declining the reviews opens the possibility of burning that bridge. Not as much as the "nuclear option," but still possible. The supervisor is not an editor looking for reviewers, the former supervisor is asking OP to do her work for her and not giving credit for that work.
    – Bob Brown
    Jan 28, 2018 at 17:35
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    If sticking up for yourself is all it takes to "burn bridges" with your advisor, your relationship with your advisor is seriously broken already.
    – JeffE
    Jan 28, 2018 at 20:13

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