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I am a PhD student and have recently accepted a review request from a (quite prestigious) journal. I wonder whether I should tell this to my supervisor. Of course, the benefit of telling them is that my supervisor might help me improve my review; the drawback is that it might affect the anonymity of the review.

Should I do that? I guess the answer depends on the field (I'm in computer science) and many other factors.

Edit: I actually meant whether I should tell my supervisor about the exact paper I review. (The paper is online and both of us know it.) If I do so, my supervisor might comment on my review and help me improve it.

Edit 2: Thank you all for your answers! I finally decided to ask the journal editor about this issue.

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    @Karl In many fields, it's completely normal to post online the same version of a paper that you submit to a journal, before it is reviewed. Mar 3 at 0:05
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    I'm not sure a PhD student should be reviewing a paper without the involvement of the supervisor. A PhD is like an apprenticeship and learning to review papers is part of that training. Your supervisor should be at least checking your work at this stage, just as a master craftsman would be checking the work of their apprentices before it went out of the door. I've never yet had an editor object to me including a PhD student in a review for this purpose - how else should we expect to get good peer reviewers if it isn't part of the training? Mar 3 at 19:34
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    @DikranMarsupial: I beg to disagree about PhD students not reviewing without their supervisor. There may be an important cultural difference behind this, though (see my answer). Over here, however, I'm concerned about two patterns I've seen far too often. a) Our PhD "students" are almost always fully qualified professionals (even though without experience). But academic culture/structure over here is quite prone to power abuse, and PhD positions are particularly at risk. Belittling the abilities of PhD students together with micromanagement is one way this abuse of power takes... Mar 3 at 21:53
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    ... The very same MSc holder outside academia could easily be trusted to work in a position where they write expert opinions that actually have legal or health consequences (I'm thinking e.g. of food chemists in public health/consumer protection/quality assurance). b) I've also seen far too many situations where I have the very strong suspicion that a supervisor told their student to do a review and then submitted under their own name, without informing the editor. I'm thus very happy to see that you first consult the editor about doing a review together with your student, ... Mar 3 at 21:53
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    ... and I trust that you a good teacher who helps and lets their students grow rather than keeping them under your power. But to me, the possibility of a) or b) hiding behind honest motives like yours is the larger risk compared to a PhD student submitting a badly written review. Also, if we decide that students need better training how to judge papers and write reviews, this could be done without compromising the actual review process. (Just as we train them e.g. in labwork practica to handle instrumentation without compromising actual research experiments.) Mar 3 at 21:55

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There is a difference between telling your supervisor about your request and involving them actively. Telling them that you received such a request does not necessarily impact the anonymity of the review, as you don't have to tell them specifics, just that you received it. They will probably be pleased that you are taking part in the peer review process, as this is something that is kind of expected in academia.

Learning how to do (good) peer reviews is a process that your supervisor may be able to help you with, and it can thus be beneficial to talk with them about it. Again, if you want to maintain the anonymity, you don't have to talk specifics, but you can still get general advice from them.

When I received my first peer review request, I told my supervisor. He was able to help me with some doubts I had (like reasons why you should recommend rejecting a paper or instead request major revisions) without ever having a single glimpse at the paper in question.

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    You and I have similar opinions. I think your answer is better than mine. Mar 2 at 12:24
  • @EthanBolker Thanks, but your answer isn't bad either :-) Mar 2 at 12:33
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    There is a chance that a student gets a review request after their advisor rejected it and recommended asking the student instead. In which case the advisor has probably already seen the paper and thus can offer some more detailed guidance. In any case, letting your advisor know you are doing a review is a good idea indeed.
    – user53923
    Mar 2 at 13:56
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    "When I received my first peer review request, I told my supervisor." Same here. I was a bit unsure because it was a single-reviewer journal and it felt like a lot of responsibility, so I wanted a 2nd opinion before accepting the review task. He never said he suggested me, but I had my suspicions
    – Chris H
    Mar 3 at 11:00
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    @AnonymousPhysicist: I agree that the answer would benefit from emphasizing more the important difference between telling that you do a review, and asking general (i.e. abstracted from the case at hand) advise vs. violating confidentialiy by disclosing information about the actual manuscript (without approval by the editor). However, IMHO this answer is not unambiguously unethical. Mar 3 at 22:02
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The answer does indeed depend on many factors.

Part of your advisor's job is to teach/show you how the profession works. If you think their help or insight could substantially improve your review, then asking them for that help may be appropriate.

You could ask if they think that help would compromise the review process.

You could consider asking the editor if showing your review to your advisor would be OK.

You should not be asking your advisor for help deciding on your recommendation to the editor - just on matters of style, like a good way to suggest changes.

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  • "You should not be asking your advisor for help deciding on your recommendation to the editor" -- why not? I'd generally disagree.
    – usul
    Mar 3 at 15:51
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    @usul Perhaps. If you wanted to do that I might suggest checking with the editor first. Mar 3 at 15:54
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    "You could consider asking the editor if showing your review to your advisor would be OK." This is mandatory, not optional. Mar 3 at 18:09
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Yes!

Like with every other non-trivial activity which you are doing for the first time, it's best to have an instructor with you. Your advisor is able to teach you how to write a good reviewer report, and might also point out things you missed or should emphasize. Furthermore, your advisor is likely to be interested that you are doing peer review.

Involving your advisor doesn't compromise the anonymity of the review. It just means you tell the editor that the review was from both of you. You know each other are reviewers, but the authors still won't know. Potentially more concerning is if the article itself was supposed to be confidential, but that would be unusual. Many (most?) papers in computer science are posted on the arXiv before they are ever submitted to a journal.

So: no drawbacks, but there are potential benefits, so you should do it.

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    "if the article itself was supposed to be confidential, but that would be unusual." It's not unusual in my field. Check with the editor/editorial policy before acting. Mar 3 at 18:10
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Yes, I think you should discuss it with your advisor.

The upsides are significant and have been mentioned in other answers. The downsides are small:

  • At this point in your career, it is assumed that your advisor is aware of and guiding essentially all your professional work. In other words, I believe you are not violating norms to include your advisor here and it should be expected that this would happen.
  • At this point, any of your conflicts of interest are probably your advisor's conflicts also. Conversely, if your advisor has a conflict on the paper, you probably should not be reviewing it anyway as they are in a position of authority over you and at this point you are not quite autonomous. So the conflict-of-interest downsides are negligible.
  • I don't think there's any ethical problem with the advisor influencing your opinion and recommendation. Conversely, your responsibility is to gather information to make the most accurate recommendation possible, and consulting an expert is a great help.
  • Discussions between a PhD student and advisor are necessary for guiding you and can be kept confidential. It's like attorney-client privilege in my book.
  • Anonymity has known, accepted limits. There are a number of editors who know the reviewers, possibly someone who recommended you and at least suspects you're reviewing (this might be your advisor themself), etc. People often assign sub-reviewers or sometimes reach out for help in reviews to other experts. All of these people are trusted not to share this information any further.

(The situation could be different if you were late-career and used to reviewing big papers on your own, but in that case you wouldn't have asked this question.)


P.S. Actually, what you should probably do is tell your advisor that you have been asked to review a paper without telling them what it is. Then ask if they think it's okay to help you review it. Let the advisor decide.

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    Sorry to (-1), but I see a huge ethical problem with this recommendation. In my field, reviewers agree to keep the manuscript content confidential (regardless of availability on pre-print servers). We do not know whether this is different for OP. The advise in this answer would be perfectly OK (even though I'd disagree with some expectations) if and only if the journal's reviewer guidelines allow PhD students to disclose manuscript information to their supervisor (IMHO highly unusual) or OP first asks the editor who will then typically be OK with the involvement of the supervisor. Mar 3 at 22:17
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    @cbeleitesunhappywithSX That's fine, norms differ across fields and your comment is very useful. I also agree that checking with the editor first is a good idea. I don't follow the part about keeping the content confidential - the student wouldn't even need to share the submission, they could just ask the advisor's opinion on the preprint the advisor has already read. I do see an argument for keeping the identity of the reviewer confidential, or the fact that the paper was submitted to a particular journal.
    – usul
    Mar 3 at 23:09
  • pre-print available: I agree it would be fine to discuss the scientific merits of the pre-print (say, "Is their control group actually appropriate?") - but then in my field I'd be careful to not disclose the connection that I'm actually reviewing this. I read "supervisor might comment on my review" in the question as supervisor seeing the draft of the review, and that would violate the confidentiality requirements for reviewers in my field. Mar 3 at 23:17
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If the reviewers have sent you the review request on the condition that you will keep it anonymous, then you must keep it anonymous. They have asked your personal opinion, not a group opinion. If they want your advisor's review, they could have asked him directly.

Later on at some convenient time (when the paper has been decided), you can talk to your advisor about it.

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    I don't agree fully with this. Probably they would want the advisor's review, but they assume the advisor doesn't have time. Or they may have already asked the advisor and been rejected. Also, the anonymity barrier between an advisor and student doesn't make a lot of sense as I will discuss in an answer.
    – usul
    Mar 3 at 15:21
  • If the reviewers... => that should be editor, right? Mar 3 at 20:33
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    If you are maintaining the confidentiality of the content of a submitted paper, that does not end "when the paper has been decided". It could conceivably end once the paper has been published, but if for example it is rejected that does not suddenly open it up as fair game because a decision has been rendered. The intellectual content is to be kept secret to not make the peer review process an avenue for disclosure of ideas and possible scooping of a result.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 3 at 21:30
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You can always say informally that you are reviewing a paper from [Researcher Name] about [Topic], but you are usually not allowed to discuss openly the contents of the paper (either with coworkers or on some forum over the Internet) nor use the contents for your own research before it is actually published. If the paper is already on an online repository such as arXiv, that does not matter anymore as the paper is already public. Finally, there is no reason you could not ask for some help to evaluate a certain part of the paper you do not really understand. Reviewing is not only about evaluating papers, but also learning how to present complex ideas in a clear way and learning new stuffs in the process. It usually gives a lot of new ideas.

However, in some fields, such as in Biology, it is well known that a review request accepted by a professor will be actually written by some PhD student or postdoc, possibly several of them. This is common practice.

Finally, some journals also make both reviews and reviewers' names public at the end.

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    "you are usually not allowed to discuss openly the contents of the paper" Something the other answers missed. Mar 3 at 18:13
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    "it is well known that a review request accepted by a professor will be actually written by some PhD student or postdoc, possibly several of them. This is common practice." - though this is indeed "well known" in biology, I have always heard of it as a rather negatively perceived activity... Lazy PIs, reviews that are so amateurish or pedantic there is no way they could have been written by the assigned reviewer. I've never heard someone admit that this is a thing they themselves do.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 3 at 21:27
  • @BryanKrause Yeah, I also do not like it because someone will get the credit for the work of some other people, and this is not fair. The fair way would be to decline to review and provide the name of the person who will do the review, so that this person will get the well deserved credit for the work.
    – KBS
    Mar 3 at 21:30
  • @KBS I think the value of that "deserved credit" is quite miniscule, in that participating in peer review is more of a professional service where it's not particularly necessary that other people know that you did the work, it's more important that YOU know you did the work, but yes, it is perfectly reasonable for a PI to write an editor and say "I do not have time to review this manuscript, but my (post doc/student) X would be qualified to do so" and typically the editor will not have a problem with this.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 3 at 21:33
  • @BryanKrause Yes, there is credit to receive when reviewing as you participate to the community and this should be properly acknowledged. This is the reason why publons.com was introduced. If you are doing a good job as a reviewer, it should be recognized in the same way as you do a good job as a researcher, teacher, mentor, etc.
    – KBS
    Mar 3 at 21:36
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In prestigious Journals, an email invitation to review includes links to accept or decline. So, you should ensure that the manuscript content is close enough to your area. Basically, all materials associated with the review process are confidential. But, you are allowed to consult with colleagues or invite them to write a joint report; in such cases, you have to include the names and contact information of any colleagues who help in writing the report. This academic ethic must always be maintained.

Please see the "Guidelines for Referees" in Physical Review Letter: https://journals.aps.org/prl/referees/guidelines-for-referees

But informally you can always consult with others as long as you do not disclose the private information and achievements of the article. Of course, if someone has a significant role in your report, it is your moral duty to notify the editor of that journal about it.

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    "you are allowed to consult with colleagues or invite them to write a joint report" Only with editorial approval. Mar 3 at 18:11
  • @AnonymousPhysicist - journals.aps.org/prl/referees/guidelines-for-referees
    – Robin
    Mar 3 at 18:28
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    yes that's an example of editorial approval. Mar 3 at 19:21
  • @AnonymousPhysicist - There is no mention of "editorial approval" there. I'm one of APS referees. That is your false conclusion ... I do not understand why you insist so much.
    – Robin
    Mar 4 at 13:13
  • If the editors put it in the guidelines for referees, then the editors have approved it. Not all journals have that policy. Mar 4 at 14:58
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I received my PhD in Molecular Biophysics ten years ago from a graduate school in Texas. Since then I have been working in industry. As long as there is no conflict of interest, such as, if the manuscript author is your supervisor’s friend or competitor, then I don’t see an issue of letting your supervisor know. To do a good peer review, you actually have to spend time looking up references and do some research, all these efforts take away valuable time for your own thesis research. So it’s reasonable to inform your supervisor what you are doing with your time. However, if you wish your supervisor to help improve your review, then I am not onboard with your reviewing it or telling your supervisor. After all, the editor reached out to you, not your supervisor. If you don’t feel qualified, then in all honesty, you should not accept editor’s request.

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There is no difference between the rights and duties of a PhD student doing their first review or a professor doing their 1000th.

  • You're free to tell the fact that you got a paper to review, and which journal that request comes from.

  • You are bound by the reviewer guidelines of the journal in question, like any other reviewer.
    Unless they explicitly state that fresh PhD students may do the review with the help of their professor (which I'd consider extremely unusual), you cannot disclose confidential information, e.g. content of the paper, to your supervisor.
    In my field, we have such confidentiality requirements regardless of whether a preprint of the manuscript is publicly available or not. If a preprint is available, you can discuss the merits of the preprint as it is publicly known with your supervisor, but then cannot not disclose the fact you are reviewer for that manuscript.

  • You may ask your supervisor (or other colleagues) general questions, though.
    Say, you find a dynamite plot "summarizing" 5 data points each into a bar and standard error - and wonder whether requesting the authors to change it into a point diagram is OK or asking too much: by putting the question in such abstract terms you do not reveal the content of the manuscript.

  • If you feel you are not fully qualified to do the review without asking colleagues (e.g. your supervisor) for advise about the content, that is typically possible by contacting the journal editor who will then give you leave to talk e.g. with your supervisor.


When I received my first review request, I told the fact at lunch break, and that I did yet feel qualified to judge a manuscript. My professor told me to please remember that I'm a fully qualified chemist since I graduated with my Diplom (nowadays Master), with all professional rights and duties that come along with it. And that papers are supposed to written so that they are understandable and the argumentation sufficiently clear convincing to any professional of roughly the (sub)field in question. In other words, to people like me.

IIRC, there was also an argument that already my Diplom thesis required me to critically judge the papers I studied wrt. what conclusions can be drawn from them.
Nowadays, I'd say: if a supervisor thinks their students need direct training on how to write a review, a format like a journal club is a very good opportunity to do so: the papers can be openly discussed to their merits in a group, and also what can reasonably be requested and to formulate this can be developed with a whole group of students. And this is possible without compromising a review process.

BTW, I suspect that I got this review request either because he as editor of the journal (of which I was not aware at the time - IIRC I did not see who the editor handling the manuscript was) suggested me or because he suggested me as alternative reviewer when he turned down the review request.

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The only reason I would be worried about anonymity is if I thought the paper deserved a bad review and I knew that my advisor was close to one of the authors. If I were in that situation I would question myself since my advisor is supposed to be my guide to the field, and if I can't trust their judgment then what am I doing? I mean, maybe it is a bad paper but hopefully your advisor would recognize that too.

If you think your advisor would be able to give the paper a fair review then there is no reason not to share it with them.

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    You've misunderstood the purpose of anonymity. It's to prevent the impression that the reviewer has been bribed. Mar 3 at 18:12
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    @AnonymousPhysicist I think bribery is a very small part of it... though there are two rather separate issues here: confidentiality of the reviewer's identity, and confidentiality of the contents of the reviewed paper. I do think this answer misses touching on the latter.
    – Bryan Krause
    Mar 3 at 21:25

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