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As an incoming physics PhD student, I've recently been offered an opportunity to review a manuscript for a journal, it's a paper that builds upon a prior work I've co-authored.

While I'm familiar with its foundational aspects, I have not performed peer reviews before, and some of the paper's complex mathematical aspects are outside my current expertise. Recognizing this as a valuable learning experience in peer reviewing, I'm inclined to accept this invitation. However, I'm unsure if I should inform the journal editor that it's my first peer reviewing and seek guidance on evaluating the paper's suitability for publication.

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    Assure yourself that the publication is reputable and that you aren't being exploited. Some invitations to review are like that.
    – Buffy
    Nov 17, 2023 at 16:19
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    Please limit posts to a single question, and avoid making edits that would make the existing answers no longer responsive to the question asked. I suggest posting a new question about time limits and being given only a single or a few days to complete a review.
    – Bryan Krause
    Nov 18, 2023 at 15:39

2 Answers 2

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No, there is no need to inform the editor of this. However, since I imagine you do not have much experience with receiving and writing reports, you should discuss the matter with your advisor and also ask for their feedback (or feedback from some other trusted mentor) once you have written your report.

Depending on the field, the expectation may be that you should ask permission from the editor first before showing your report to anyone.* I don't know what the conventions are in physics.

The question you should ask yourself is whether you are willing to invest the time to check the paper in detail. You say that parts of the paper lie outside of your current expertise. This should be okay as long as you treat this as a learning opportunity and invest some time learning about the techniques used in the paper. Alternatively, if there is a small part of the paper that you could not check due to your lack of expertise, then you need to state this explicitly in your report ("results A and B are correct, but I was unable to verify result C, as it lies outside of my area of expertise"). If the part of the paper that you are unable to check for yourself is significant, you should probably decline to write a review (but discuss this with your advisor first).

Footnote*: In my opinion, minor transgressions of this principle done in good faith in the form of running a largely positive review by one's Ph.D. advisor to check that it is clearly and professionally written and has all the information that the editor needs are okay to do without having to bother the editor about it, but others may disagree.

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    This is good advice, but I’ll add to it that it is essential to ask the editor first for their approval to consult another person. The review process is confidential and once you agree to be a reviewer you also agree to keep the manuscript (and its ideas etc.) confidential. The authors or editors might have good reasons to avoid specific reviewers.
    – user126108
    Nov 17, 2023 at 15:52
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    @leonos I have edited the answer based on your comment. Nov 17, 2023 at 16:15
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    @leonos I always get the sense that physics is less strict about these things than some other fields. If you look at the guidelines for referees for APS journals, under "Confidentiality" it says that the materials associated with the peer review process "must remain confidential when you consult with colleagues or invite them to write a joint report. We ask that you include the names and contact information of any colleagues who help in writing the report.". Note the lack of any mention of required pre-approval before consulting with colleagues.
    – Anyon
    Nov 17, 2023 at 16:31
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    @leonos Authors can request to exclude certain reviewers. I'm not sure how an editor would treat cases where a reviewer discloses consulting with someone who the editor agrees should be excluded.
    – Anyon
    Nov 17, 2023 at 19:38
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    @leonos If the author requests Dr. X to be excluded as a referee and the editor agrees to this but sends the manuscript to Dr. X's Ph.D. student, then although this fulfills the letter of the author's request, I would say the fault in that case lies squarely with the editor and not with the Ph.D. student if Dr. X gets wind of the manuscript. Nov 17, 2023 at 20:30
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If there are parts you don't/can't review, make this delimited scope clear in your review

As noted in the other answer here, even if there are parts of the work that are outside your present expertise, you may be able to review them anyway by going through the material slowly and methodically and learning what you need to know for the review as you go. If this is not possible, and there are aspects of a paper that are beyond your competency to review even with some additional study, you should state the delimited scope of your review accordingly. This is something you can write directly in your review, which makes the scope of your review clear to both the author and the editor. It is still okay to act as a reviewer for the paper so long as you are able to review a sufficient amount of the paper to be helpful to the editor. What we want to avoid in these situations is cases where a part of the paper has not been properly reviewed but the editor is unaware of this because the reviewers fail to disclose limitations on scope.

Delimited reviews sometimes occur in papers that involve more than one disciplinary area, where reviewers from different fields scrutinise different aspects of the paper. (I once reviewed the probability/statistical material in a physics paper; since I am not trained in physics I made it clear in my review that its scope was limited to review of the probability and statistics and that another reviewer would need to scrutinise the physics.) This can occur even with experienced reviewers. For a junior reviewer it would not be at all unreasonable if you delimit the scope of your review to avoid areas you feel incompetent to scrutinise, so long as you make it clear which parts you did not review.

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    You can also make this clear in a private note just to the editor, if the system allows this
    – toby544
    Nov 18, 2023 at 8:27

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