Is it ethical to a professor to accept a manuscript for review, and then have a graduate student referee it? What about assisting as a referee?

I understand that graduate students can be involved in the review process- this isn't my question. As far as the journal/editors are aware, the professor is the referee, but in actuality, the student is performing the review.

If an assigned referee would like a student to participate, how could this be done properly?

  • 12
    No, I think it is not ethical to "subcontract" referee reports without disclosing this to the editor. It seems however to be a common practice in some fields. I believe this has already come up on this site... Jun 29, 2015 at 17:02
  • @PeteL.Clark Thanks for your comment. I had searched, but hadn't found any other questions. Sorry if this is a duplicate.
    – buckminst
    Jun 29, 2015 at 17:04
  • 1
    See e.g. academia.stackexchange.com/questions/5662/… Jun 29, 2015 at 17:36

4 Answers 4


Is it ethical to a professor to accept a manuscript for review, and then have a graduate student referee it?

Though commonplace in some fields (or among some professors), the practice of passing the review to a student, without the agreement of the editor, is utterly unethical for at least two reasons:

  1. The editor expects a review from that specific expert s/he required, not from a ghost one.
  2. The work of the student would not be credited.

Moreover, in some cases, publishers ask to treat the manuscript as confidential, and in that case passing it to someone else can be considered as a breach of confidentiality.

The proper way to handle this passage is the following: the professor should write to the editor refusing the review and suggesting the student (or any other person) as a possible substitute, possibly outlining the credentials of this person to serve as reviewer. Then, the editor will decide what to do with this piece of information: either pass the review to the suggested reviewer or choose another reviewer.

  • 14
    I would consider manuscripts I received to referee as confidential whether or not this is mentioned anywhere explicitly by the editor.
    – Arno
    Jun 29, 2015 at 18:31
  • 3
    This does seem to vary with the field - in some fields, it's an expected part of the process both for the review and for the grad student. I'd still play it safe and just check with the editor before delegating, and of course review their review. Jun 29, 2015 at 22:58
  • 5
    @rpavlik: Is it really expected, or is it just something that people in certain circles get away with? Have you ever seen or received explicit referee instructions sanctioning this action? Jun 29, 2015 at 23:57
  • Well, I've been told it was expected (from a prof who also taught the responsible research course), and have also seen emails from editors/chairs. Now, I think it's primarily (only?) been conferences in my case, and while I'm not usually credited that I know of, the primary reviewer doesn't just take my review and pass it on, they moreso use it as a starting point. Haven't seen it in explicit instructions, though I think I would have been more comfortable with that. Jun 30, 2015 at 17:01

While I agree that unacknowledged reviewing is unethical, I would like to offer a counter-point on how I have often seen review "subcontracting" done ethically.

In communities that acknowledge and support the practice of involving students / postdocs / etc. in reviewing, there is often actually an official means of an invited reviewer designating the person they "subcontract" the review to as a sub-reviewer. This puts both the original and the secondary reviewer officially into the process and is fully transparent to the editor.

EasyChair is an example of a platform that supports this, and when I am acting as Program Chair of an EasyChair conference, I appreciate this feature greatly. It means that I know which reviews have been done by a junior rather than the original PI, which also most definitely affects how I weight the judgement thereby expressed.

  • Does the sub-reviewer get official acknowledgement that s/he can see for her/imself? (so the junior person knows s/he gets credit)
    – Kimball
    Jun 30, 2015 at 2:23
  • @Kimball I can't say for certain in general, but EasyChair tends to always email everybody involved unless they specifically opt out.
    – jakebeal
    Jun 30, 2015 at 3:08
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    As an additional point, this sort of subcontracting can also be used as training for a PhD student, if done properly. (This is also mentioned in the link given in the comments of the question.)
    – Nathan S.
    Jun 30, 2015 at 5:44
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    The EasyChair situation seems to be complicated. Whenever I've reviewed for an EasyChair-organized conference, I've always been referred to as a "subreviewer", even though I was contacted directly by the PC member. EasyChair seems to believe that PC members, by default, do all reviewing themselves and anyone they ask to review a paper is a "subreviewer", rather than a "reviewer". Jun 30, 2015 at 7:59
  • @DavidRicherby That seems very odd to me: I have done a lot of EasyChair conferences in one role or another, and have never seen this behavior.
    – jakebeal
    Jun 30, 2015 at 11:10

I disagree with the other voices here. Although it would seem unethical to suggest that a professor has reviewed a document which has only had a student overview, there are two points to make:

  1. Peer review is about guarantees of quality, not about processes achieved
  2. The graduate's review may not be the final review submitted by the professor

In any review-based system, no one can guarantee that any review is perfect; only the aggregate effect of many such reviews creating a resource of high quality. Thus the review process for a highly respected journal is much more stringent than that of an 'easier' one.

On the side of the reviewer, this is a responsibility-based role, not a procedural one; what is important is that the professor is willing to stake a measure of their reputation on the review; if the graduate knows more detail of the field and the professor trusts their judgement, it could be a more thorough review than the professor could provide. As long as the professor judges the reviewer to be competent, that is their responsibility.

Finally, having a student review a paper may well be only part of the process; give it to a couple of students, see if they come up with anything. If they don't understand it, or they discover flaws, then the professor can review the paper herself in that light. Just because the graduate student has reviewed a paper doesn't mean that the professor will just pass the review on without comment.

The key, though, is that the journal is only asking that the professor provides responsible and competent feedback, and signs off on the review. How the professor reaches that goal is up to them, and peers that provide poor reviews should be excluded from the review pool (and associated privileges) by the journal. There is no magic to a professor reading a paper, and their judged competence to do so is only based on the university's assignment of professorship and the academic's history of research. Everything builds on expectations and responsibilities, not on some procedure having been carried out; the procedure is only there to make those responsibilities explicit.

  • I agree. Reviews were passed to me both as a student and as a postdoc, and as long as the official reviewer also looks at the paper, I don't see it as a problem. It would have been good reviewing practice for a career in academia.
    – Flounderer
    Jul 1, 2015 at 4:49

I have seen the following situation. Professor X is assigned to review a paper, which is also publicly available on the arXiv. Professor X assigns a student to read and present the paper in a seminar, and during the course of discussion between the student and Professor X, an error is found. Professor X then summarizes the error in his or her referee report and recommends rejection. This seems pretty kosher. The only negative I see is that X did not acknowledge the student's contribution in his or her letter. But since this would only be seen by one other person, the managing editor, I'm not sure how important this is.

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