I would like to ask you concerning a situation I was a few years back.

I was an unofficial intern at a research institution. The aim of the internship was to study and search for new methods from a field that was unfamiliar to me or my supervisor and to check how it could be used in my supervisor's field. During this internship, my supervisor asked to study an article that was put for submission, and to write some kind of peer review report on it. I was unfamiliar with the topic, and the supervisor was unfamiliar with one of the topics (it was an article that used a combination of two fields). I did it, but eventually realized that it didn't seem to be ethical, as you need an expert to conduct such work. I even wonder if it was legal.

The situation took place in EU.

  • 8
    I think "legal" in the topline is incorrect. "Ethical", maybe. But no laws would concern this sort of task.
    – Buffy
    Jan 30, 2021 at 13:16
  • 7
    Your supervisor is the responsible for the submission of the report. He simply delegated some work to you, you deliver what you did, and then it's his responsibility to use what you produced or not (if he finds it suitable). IANAL, but I cannot see anything close to illegal in this. It might be unethical if he didn't look at what you wrote and simply submitted the report as it was his.
    – cinico
    Jan 30, 2021 at 13:17
  • 1
    Which laws in particular are you worried about? Legal questions are often better suited on the law stackexchange. Jan 30, 2021 at 13:20
  • @cinico I suspect he did that, but I have no proof.
    – John Mayne
    Jan 30, 2021 at 13:21
  • @user2705196 I don't know any laws concerning this, that's why I asked if it was illegal in any way.
    – John Mayne
    Jan 30, 2021 at 13:22

3 Answers 3


The only ethical concern I see here is possibly one of deceit. If the supervisor or yourself misrepresented who the author of the review is.

But you didn't mention the destination of the review or where the original request came from.

But there are many situations in which such a thing would be perfectly fine. For example, a review used only internally. Or a situation in which the supervisor wanted the intern to learn enough to do a good job and get the experience of a review. This isn't especially rare in the case of advisors asking doctoral students to write reviews either as a form of practice or to provide a "first draft" of something.

But you can't expect that every reviewer on every paper is completely knowledgeable about what is in the paper. That would imply that science doesn't actually advance at all and that only "known" things appear in articles.

But, submitting your work under their own name would be a form of deceit. And, sadly, this happens in the case of doctoral students noted above.

Another form of deceit would be misrepresenting one's qualifications to do a review, though I don't see elements of that here. That would be an issue between the supervisor and the editor.

  • Thank you for your answer. In my case, no, it wasn't done with a pedagogical aim. As for the topic, it was really something that would need to be done by two specialists in distinct fields, and it wasn't. For example like biology and physics, and the peer review was performed only by a biologist.
    – John Mayne
    Jan 30, 2021 at 13:27
  • I once had to handle, as editor, a paper that involved two different fields. I sent it to two referees, one in each field, and asked them to report on the part of the paper that's in their own area. It's possible that your supervisor was also responsible only for reviewing the part of the paper that's in his area. Jan 30, 2021 at 18:09

To my mind, is not a best practice at best and probably can be seen as unethical too. The rule of thumb to follow is to make things clear in terms of who is the author of what and how the workload is distributed in terms of reputation gain.

In most situations like the one you presented, someone is left thinking about the conduct, and when publicly available, depending on the impact factor of your research work, if it includes a copy of previous works as if it is your own, one might not point you out what is wrong, but instead decline the invitations from you or even be misleading when they shouldn't. This depends on the type of research field and at what research group your part of, of course. Many research groups so "highly competitive" (although the term is inaccurate ) and collaboration only happens at a cost/benefit. But there also other groups that are opposite. Opened, collaborative towards a common research goal.


It seems to me this could be entirely appropriate and ethical. Many journal web systems have a place where the reviewer types in the name of a sub-reviewer. In my experience, the system can take a while to inform the sub-reviewer of this, and in any case it could be via email that is lost.

You should learn from others about how refereeing functions in your discipline. I had not heard of sub-reviewing at all the years I worked only in pure mathematics. It is not really done in some disciplines. I learned about this when a physicist asked me for my opinion on a paper. I started getting request from math journals and physics journals. See elsewhere on this site on the art of saying no.

For reference, here is the Physical Review Letters Guidelines for Referees. It specifically talks about how a referee is to declare "colleagues who help in writing the report."

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .