I was just handed a paper for review (official review request by an editor of a journal) written by my current supervisor (the guy with the grant). I have not been involved in this work, and I don't feel inclined to dish out any free goodwill on behalf of him being my supervisor.

I'm well qualified to review it, and I think I would do a good job of it, but I'm worried that this constitutes a conflict of interest, and that I should decline. What is common practice around reviewing co-workers' papers?

  • What do you mean here by "for review"? Is this just your supervisor handing you the paper and asking you for comments, or is the part of an official peer review process? (That is, has a third party editor of a journal asked you be an anonymous peer reviewer for a paper authored by your supervisor?)
    – R.M.
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 23:14
  • 2
    @R.M. Official review process, yes, I had a third party editor of a journal ask me to be an anonymous peer reviewer for a paper authored by my supervisor...
    – Arnfinn
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 23:48
  • 3
    Frankly, this is a red flag on the journal. Several publishers I know (including e.g. APS) will regard "works in the same institution" as a conflict of interest as far as peer review goes. If I were asked to review my current supervisor's output then I would have a severely reduced opinion of that journal's peer review process - how do you know that X paper in that journal wasn't reviewed by someone inside the same group? How do you know whether they declined to 'dish out free goodwill', or whether they only said they didn't but they put a thumb on the scale anyway?
    – E.P.
    Commented Nov 24, 2016 at 2:01
  • What might be even more concerning is that it's possible that they authors proposed the OP for a reviewer, knowing the dependency relation with them
    – BioGeo
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 12:45

5 Answers 5


If this is an informal request for internal review -- definitely go ahead. It is common practice to have close associates review work, and your thoughtful comments will gain you respect.

If this is a formal invitation from a journal -- it is a clear conflict of interest. It probably should never have been sent to you, quite honestly. This is not to say you couldn't provide an unbiased, thoughtful review, but to an outsider this would really be questionable. I suggest you take the high road, decline the invitation, and send a letter to the action editor reminding him of your close association.

  • 1
    It's the second option that I've encountered. I have informed the editor, but I have not heard anything back yet.
    – Arnfinn
    Commented Nov 22, 2016 at 23:54
  • Would it be appropriate to do the review and also clearly state to the editor when submitting the review that you have a conflict of interest?
    – pbond
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 14:53
  • 10
    @pbond, no. The review could take some time and the editor should reject the review when they learn about the conflict. So, you have just wasted the editor's time. The editor needs to get another reviewer on board as soon as possible.
    – mikeazo
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 16:21
  • 9
    @Arnfinn You shouldn't expect to hear back from the editor. They asked you for a review, you declined due to a conflict of interest, and that's it. Perfectly fine.
    – silvado
    Commented Nov 24, 2016 at 19:51
  • @pbond It's fair to inform the editor that you're the author's graduate, you can leave the decision to them; they may decide that it's fine for you to do the review, but it's their decision, not yours.
    – yo'
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 11:31

Definitely don't do it. Write to the editor and decline. Often, journals will have some explicit guidelines on who appropriate referees are and what conflict-of-interest rules apply. Even beyond being able to give an unbiased review is a related standard, which is, "Would this give the appearance of major conflict if this were openly known?" To that end, I would suggest it is always inappropriate to referee papers by:

  • Your supervisor (or, the other way around, probably also former trainees)
  • Anyone in your department who could be voting on your tenure
  • Family members
  • Direct competitors (i.e. where there could be a possibility to compete to publish a result first, or where you know you are both applying for the same fellowship).

I think the first three are examples where there is no way to avoid the appearance of conflict of interest. The fourth has a lot more wiggle room, of course, because there can always be some competition if you are close enough to referee the paper well!

  • 8
    "Direct competitors", well this actually happens a lot. If the field is small you don't have many experts in that field and chances are big that they are either cooperating or are competitors.
    – user64845
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 0:45
  • I agree - that's why I think there is more wiggle room on that part. Obviously, you could be applying for the same (broad) grant as someone you're refereeing. But there are some specific circumstances where I think it is potentially troublesome.
    – AJK
    Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 1:07
  • 4
    "Anyone who could be voting on your tenure" is a really large set, so I think that's a little bit overcautious (particularly if the reviewing is anonymous, as it usually is). Commented Nov 23, 2016 at 2:21
  • 1
    I agree on the "anyone who could be voting on your tenure," so I've edited it to make sure it only refers to your department members, not external referees. Again, the standard really is: how awful would this look if it was publicly known you were the referee? If you're refereeing your department chair... pretty bad.
    – AJK
    Commented Nov 24, 2016 at 23:30
  • In borderline cases, one can point it out to the editor as a potential conflict of interest, and let editor judge whether they think it’s too conflicting.
    – PLL
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 9:20

The problem is not so much that you couldn't be objective: probably you could. However, it is also for your protection to argue a Conflict of Interest.

Imagine you give a good review, then your judgement will be in doubt, even if justified. The review will not be considered very informative.

Imagine you give a bad one - if that comes out, you can be in a lot of trouble, being in a dependency relation to your superviser.

There are very good reasons to refuse.


I agree with other answers that you should not do the review. Here is an example of conflict of interest: http://www.sigmod2015.org/calls_papers_sigmod_research.shtml

A paper author has a conflict of interest with a PC member when and only when one or more of the following conditions holds:

  • The PC member is a co-author of the paper.

  • The PC member has been a co-worker in the same company or university within the past two years

  • The PC member has been a collaborator within the past two years.

  • The PC member is or was the author's primary thesis advisor, no matter how long ago.

  • The author is or was the PC member's primary thesis advisor, no matter how long ago.

  • The PC member is a relative or close personal friend of the author.

Papers with incorrect or incomplete conflict of interest information as of the submission closing time are subject to immediate rejection.

Another concern is that your supervisor can recognize your writing style in the review, and this can lead to awkward situation. This is very likely since you and him/her probably co-authored a paper before, you send him/her emails everyday. You may have a habit of language usage that you yourself don't recognize, but everyone else do.

Sometime, I do review for conferences that adopt double-blinded review, and I can correctly guess the authors. Because I read a lot of their papers in the past, and unintentionally train a classifier in my mind to recognize their writing style :).


The question not asked yet is: Do you want to review the paper?

If you don't then refuse it on behalf of conflict of interest.

If you are confident you will do good job and you want to do it, then inform the editor that one of the authors is your supervisor and that there might be conflict of interest. And let the editor to decide.

  • 1
    There is conflict of interest by default in these cases, because we can be biased even if we don't want to be. It's not about doing a good or bad job. Even knowing the authors can affect your review (although most often it's unavoidable not to know anyone). And I don't mean you will accept a manuscript that would otherwise go for rejection. It's small things adding up to a not so negative review or to a more positive than it deserves. In any case, as an editor you can't trust unless you are certain that the review is as objective as possible.
    – BioGeo
    Commented Nov 25, 2016 at 12:44

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