I am an M.Sc. student in computer science, working on machine learning.

Recently my supervisor assigned me a paper on biomedical signals field to review. The review task is assigned to my advisor who is a referee of a journal and he assigned it to me to do it for him (I am sure he will not check my review and will submit it directly).

However, the paper is weakly (if not at all) related to my field; I don't even have an idea about its title. What should be my approach? Particularly in judging if the paper has properly covered background works and if it's novelty when I am not familiar with the field at all?

The best option is to decline but I have not that opportunity. That is a "must" to do work for me if I don't want to ruin my relation with my advisor.

I should mention that this is the first time I was assigned to review a paper.

  • 3
    What do you mean by "review" here? Is this a paper that's been submitted to a peer-reviewed journal or conference, and you are to review it to decide whether it should be published? Normally such a review assignment would come from the editor or the conference organizers, not from your supervisor. So I am not sure I understand the situation. Or is your advisor just asking you to read and review it for your own education? Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 16:52
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    If this really is a peer-review situation, and you don't have the necessary expertise to properly assess the paper, then you should decline to review it. Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 16:55
  • @NateEldredge the review task is assigned to my advisor who is a referrer of a journal and he assigned it to me to do it for him (I am sure he will not check my review and will submit it directly)
    – user35129
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 17:16
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    If your advisor insists on this, he is acting very badly. It is not ethical for you to submit a review that you know you are not qualified to write. It is also not appropriate for your advisor to have you "ghostwrite" the review without the consent of the editor. At this point I would start to question whether it is a good idea to be working with this advisor at all. Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 17:24
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    @CoderInNetwork how do you know you can't refuse? Has he told you explicitly? Is it a condition for your graduation? Are you just guessing?
    – Davidmh
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 18:39

3 Answers 3


I agree with all of @Nate Eldredge's comments. If you have a good relationship with your advisor, you should be able to say "This paper lies outside of my field of expertise. I don't feel qualified to review it; in fact, even to understand it at a basic level would require me to spend substantial time familiarizing myself with the terminology of a different academic field."

According to your comments, you do not feel comfortable saying this to your advisor. So here is what I would suggest instead: do the reviewing together with your advisor, in person. So for instance you could begin by saying "I started reading the paper you assigned me, and I have some questions I'd like to discuss with you. When can we meet to talk about it?" Then when you meet you can begin to engage with all the unfamiliar stuff and see for yourself how far away it really is from your interests and those of your advisor. If it turns out that your advisor doesn't understand the paper either, I would try to subtly lead him to the conclusion that neither of you should be reviewing it. If he tries to shove it onto you, reiterate that you are doing it but that you want to get his input. If necessary, ask a question of the form "How would you handle this review job if you were in my place?" The point being that the advisor is in your place since he is the one who has been asked to do the reviewing. To pull this off properly may require some verbal aikido.

The worst case scenario is that after all this your advisor makes clear to you that he doesn't care that neither of your have the expertise to review this paper; he wants you to do it anyway. At that point he is asking you to commit academic dishonesty, and you will be in a tough spot: you will have to decide whether turning in a noncommittal review of a paper that you don't understand is the least evil.

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    ... and then find a new advisor, if possible. One who you can say "I can't review this paper because it's outside my area of expertise" to without fear of repercussions.
    – ff524
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 18:17
  • 2
    @ff524: I agree, and if it were me I would certainly try to find a new advisor. I have noticed though that we say that a lot on this site to students who are having difficulties with their advisors; since the OP is a master's student, it could be that riding out the crappy advisor is the best route for him (e.g. if he does not plan on continuing in academia). Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 18:20
  • yeah you are right but I need just 3 month for graduation and also need him for PhD recommendation letter.
    – user35129
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 18:48
  • thanks for answer too. I reconsider the situation again.
    – user35129
    Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 18:48

Unfortunately, this happens all the time, This is quite normal, and your priority as a student is to graduate, not to try and fix the utterly broken peer review system.

In this situation, if discussing with your advisor is going to cause stress, read the paper, and review to the best of your ability without spending forever on it, or pretending you know things you don't. If it's title is incomprehensible, then this is frankly a comment that could go in the review - since the purpose of a paper is to make your results intelligible to the academic community - at least what they are about even if not every detail. This alone would be a more constructive review than many.

I really wouldn't worry about reviewing for novelty - nobody knows every single piece of literature out there, and a reviewers job is to give an opinion, at least on whether the paper makes sense - not to do a vast literature search for the editor of the journal.

On the flip side of the coin, have this out with your advisor, and the most likely result is that the student who wrote the paper will have their publication delayed through no fault of their own.

  • 8
    I fear that, in my experience/world, this answer is misleading on several counts. No, this doesn't happen all the time. No, it's not normal. No, a title incomprehensible to beginning grad students is not any sort of problem. No, the peer-review game is (for what it's worth) not about making results intelligible to the (general?) academic community. No, it would not be ok to ignore the issue of whether results are new or not: an expert would know, while unqualified outsiders obviously will not. No literature search should be necessary. Commented Mar 27, 2016 at 23:35

I agree that your professor's act is not ethical (if his purpose is for you to ghostwrite the review) and you should politely decline to review it. However, I have seen this happens a lot. Not just with peer-review papers, but with MS and PhD dissertations, book chapters, proposal etc.

If it was to up to me, I would do the following. Read the paper, try to do a short research and see if you can understand its concept and/or purpose. Since it is outside your field, most likely it will be very challenging and you won't get it, but that is totally fine. Remember, maybe your adviser wants to see how you would handle such task, or if you willing to dig outside your comfort zone and come up with solutions (in this case, a review!). Remember, some professors like that.

Also, I would like to point out, that even if you ghostwrite a review to your adviser, that does not mean that he is going to submit the EXACT document you prepared. I have witnessed many cases in which the professor uses such document as a base or blue-print and then add/edit as necessary after s/he reviews the paper. This is exactly what my advisers used to do. They would give me a paper, I will review it then they would discuss my review (while I'm in the office with them) to teach me how to and/or not to think, review, write and analyze.

Finally, you might find this tip useful. If you couldn't review the paper because it is very hard, outside your field, too complicated or any other reason. All you can do is to go over the language, editorials, referencing, citations, formatting and base you review around such observations. Maybe doing this would send a message to your adviser that you could not review paper because (as you might have told him), it was outside your field. At least doing so can be interpreted in way that shows that you tried and did your best (although it can also be interpreted in a way that you were lazy, [let's hope not!!]).

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