Critical reading is a very useful skill for most PhD students (and postdocs and researchers in general). Instead of assuming that everything you read in a scientific paper is right, it's useful to learn how to evaluate the paper critically: e.g., to question its content, to identify shortcomings and limitations and ways it could be improved.

Experience with reviewing papers is a powerful way to gain experience at critical reading of papers. Writing reviews for journals and/or conference helps a PhD student learn to get better at reading a paper with a critical perspective.

Unfortunately, review opportunities for PhD students are rare.

For instance, it is rare for PhD students to be invited to serve on program committees or asked to review papers. In addition, some may think that PhD students are not competent enough to write correct reviews of scientific papers.

How does one solve this problem? How can a PhD student get opportunities to practice reviewing papers? What would you suggest to a PhD student who wants to do some reviews?

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    I think the first paragraph of this question ought to be re-edited to make it more useful. The assumptions about the critical ability of researchers "nowadays" are IMO baseless and speculative. They are also unnecessary for the main question which is useful and about reviewing articles. I would change it to something like "Participating in peer review of journal article can help PhD students build up critical skills, but they seldom get the opportunity to do this...." Commented May 9, 2012 at 10:17
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    How does one solve this problem? — Every time your PhD student presents a paper, ask them directly, "So, is this paper actually good?". If they say yes, look disappointed and ask "Really? Huh. Why do you think so?" If they say no, look disappointed and ask "Really? Huh. Why not?" In my department, we call this game "the qualifying exam" (only with four papers).
    – JeffE
    Commented May 9, 2012 at 15:02
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    Are you in computer science? Familiar with programming languages? I have a few papers that need reviewing. Commented May 9, 2012 at 20:16
  • @Dave Clarke I am, I am. Just write to me: davide.chicco(AT)gmail.com and we'll discuss privately. Thanx Commented May 10, 2012 at 8:03
  • @JeffE - We have a similar process for the qualifying exam, but even more importantly, that's how my advisor ran lab meetings. Presenters were required to assign a "grade" to papers they presented and then justify the rating. It's a great idea, and it encourages critical thinking.
    – eykanal
    Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 16:52

4 Answers 4


I'm going to address your question, but first, I have some issues with it generally:

I think that one of the problems of most PhD students (and postDocs and researchers in general) nowadays is that they don't read scientific papers with a critical judgement. They often think that everything is right in a scientific paper; they're not used to doubting its content...

This is manifestly not true in my opinion. Indeed in my experience (and I've seen this shared by others), I've watched faculty members reign in students who had torn into a published paper for what were essentially minor methodological flaws that wouldn't change the substantive findings of the paper one way or the other. I think a far more common problem is "failing to see the forest from the trees".

But, anyway, review opportunities for PhD students are not many.

They can be. I've reviewed 4 or 5 papers for journals in my time as a PhD student, and a disheartening number of conference abstracts.

How does one solve this problem?

There are three ways I've gotten papers to review:

  1. Your advisor puts in a good word for you. Essentially, a journal asks them to review a paper (or if they're an editor somewhere, a paper hits their pile) and they redirect it to you, either formally or informally.
  2. Publish. All of the papers I've reviewed are in areas where I already have a well received publication, which bypasses the "Journals don't think PhD students are competent" problem.
  3. Some conferences put out calls for reviewers. Keep an eye out and sign up.

What would you suggest a PhD student who wants to do some review?

Publish. The strongest way I've ever ended up getting papers to review has been from papers I've published. Talk to your advisor. Look out for opportunities - I've seen at least three calls for reviewers in my time expressly open to students. This also gives you an experience being reviewed, which is important both for honing your own skills as a reviewer, and something you need to learn how to deal with.

Are there any open-to-review journals where one could train oneself?

You don't need a journal to do this. One of the most useful things you can do to train is to get a faculty member to support a journal club where, in addition to presenting the paper, the student writes a critique in the style of a review. Not only does this force you to read the paper you're presenting more closely, but it will let you learn in a protected, mentored environment rather than "out in the wild".

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    +1: Just publish. If you haven't, you shouldn't be reviewing, and if you have, you will be reviewing. Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 19:40
  • "Some conferences put out calls for reviewers." But skip the really bad conferences. Commented Sep 10, 2015 at 3:39

I disagree with the statement that a PhD student never doubt a published article (at least in my field).

This said, it seems to me that one of the first work of a PhD student is to read and "review" papers: for example, when we start a new project, my advisors always ask me to do a whole bibliographical work, sum up the papers read to them, comment them, try to find what is good and what can be improved in the previous work. Even after, I am also asked to always follow on the new papers that could correspond to our work.

I believe it is one of the work of the advisor to help her/his PhD student to learn to do this sort of work.

Then if one really wants to review unreviewed papers, there is always ArXiv (or other equivalent repository for papers) where one can subscribe to the rss feed, then work on reviewing for oneself (or for one's advisor) the papers read that are close to your work.

Since your question seemed to be how can we do a review, I believe it is not important whether it is an official review or not: the important part was to review a paper in the first place.


Just to add some personal experience to the other answers. I did quite a lot of reviews as my advisor and other people in my group who were on programme committees asked me to do some of the reviews they were assigned to do.

As far as I can tell, this is quite common practice in Computer Science. You would probably have more trouble avoiding doing reviews than doing them.

  • I can't see why not. You're not sharing the paper with the whole group but just delegate the review to a single person. Commented Jul 24, 2012 at 20:56
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    Officially it's called subreviewing (and some of the conference management tools offer explicit support for it). The review would certainly be properly accredited. As for passing on reviews, this is basically a necessity. A well-known person in the field would be on the programme committee for many conferences and would get 10-15 papers to review for each. You can't do all that work on your own and teach and do research. Commented Jul 25, 2012 at 7:55
  • @DavidKetcheson It's not "sharing manuscripts": it's the formal procedure. A programme committee member asking somebody to review a submission is exactly the same thing as a journal editor asking somebody to review a submission. Members of the programme committee are explicitly expected to find people to review the submissions for them. Commented Sep 1, 2017 at 13:35

I don't know what field you're in, but in my field, there exist journals with a public discussion phase. Anybody can comment. For example, this interesting paper explaining why there is no easy way out to anthropogenic climate change had a lengthy discussion (most papers do not). Assigned peer reviewers are required to comment, and naturally the author is required to respond. But in addition, anybody else can respond. Unlike Stack Exchange, there is no voting (-;.

In geophysical sciences, the European Geophysical Union has the following two-stage journals (as of July 2012):

Possibly, there may be other fields where such kind of journals exist. Then you can exercise your reviewing by posting an unrequited review for a paper — note, however, that unrequited reviews (short comments) are not formally anonymous — although I have seen instances of people posting under a false name...

For a discussion on the wisdom of actually posting there, see: Pros and cons on commenting on public review papers

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