One day, you too shall be a great Reviewer #3

Recently we discussed whether publications should be required before a grad student earns a PhD. While opinions varied, I think there was consensus that the process of writing a paper and carrying through the review and revision process is a valuable lesson important for an academic career. That being said, another way to get exposed to this process is from the other end, as a reviewer. Although I’d had the experience of publishing several papers as a grad student and postdoc, it wasn’t until midway thorough my postdoc career that my advisor asked me to help her review a manuscript she was reviewing for a journal. I remember first being surprised that I was asked to do this, but more so what I remember is writing an extremely harsh and detailed review of the paper. I’m not sure why, maybe because I felt I had prove myself to my advisor or something silly like that. And I remember her saying, “wow this is way harsher than I would’ve written”. I don’t know if she then tempered my review or sent it as is. But in general I think this is a common thing, that trainees tend to feel like they have to be extremely harsh on papers they review, and not necessarily to the benefit of the paper. One thing about reviewing a paper is learning to identify the critical flaws and strengths, and learning to exclude what you think they should have done just because, well you just would have done it differently. That’s why I pretty much never hand off papers I’ve been asked to review to my trainees, because I feel it would do a disservice to the review process. I think for the most part journals are OK with PIs asking trainees to help with the reviews, they just ask you to identify the trainees in your review, but I still don’t do it. And recently some lab folks have been asking me why I never ask them to help with paper reviews. But I still don’t, despite me knowing that this is also a potential opportunity for them. I guess I could ask them to write a review and then compare it to mine, and sit with the trainee and show them what’s strong and what’s not, but that would be in an ideal world where nobody is busy as hell. How about you, do you let your trainees review papers for you? Does your PI ask you to help with the reviews?

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27 Responses to One day, you too shall be a great Reviewer #3

  1. surt_lab says:

    I think it’s an important part of the learning process, so yes. I still review the paper and go over both reviews with them though.

  2. Kyle says:

    As a trainee I find it an extremely good way to learn to be a critical reader and author. That said, my PI’s have always read the paper themselves as well, and written the version that gets submitted.

  3. amanda says:

    I think this is an important part of training scientists. Otherwise, how are trainees supposed to know how to review a paper when they find a permanent position?

    I send out papers of interest for postdocs/senior grad students to review in my lab. Then I edit their reviews per my opinion and submit. If the trainee sends me a written review, I send them the final review I submit and the reviews of the other authors. That way they can see how their review matches up to others as well as my final review. I agree that junior scientists typically write the harshest reviews.

    • namnezia says:

      I guess if the processed is supervised like that it makes sense. Just from personal experience, I certainly would not like to have my grad student self as a reviewer!

  4. Dorothy Bishop (@deevybee) says:

    As a PI I’ve only ever done this on condition that:
    a) The paper is in the area of the postdoc/postgrad and I think it would be useful experience to write a review
    b) I get permission from the journal editor to solicit an additional review from the junior person
    c) I submit my own separate review
    I would go over the additional review with the postgrad/postdoc and if need be ensure it has an appropriate tone. I’d normally submit the additional review as an independent review, giving the editor the option to explicitly identify it as an additional report by a novice reviewer if they wish.
    In other words, it can be a useful learning experience for postgrads/postdocs, and they often have a lot to offer, but they should not be expected to stand in and do the job of the PI.

    • namnezia says:

      Right, if the PI has the time to do this great. But I’m thinking of a famous PI who reviews a dozen papers a month, has a huge lab and just farms them out to trainees. I’ve received reviews that I could bet are written by a trainee, based on the tone and content. I think that is a disservice to the review process, and I think your completely above board method is ideal.

  5. jmcin9 says:

    In my current lab, as a PD. I’m often given papers to review. Grad students are occasionally also asked to review it. I then write the review as if I would submit it to the journal. At that point, we actually meet as a group and discuss the reviews. Overly harsh reviews by a trainee are tempered, while pts that are missed are brought out. PI then writes/submits a review based on discussion and written reviews to send to the journal.

  6. BoB says:

    My PI has given me (a PhD student) papers to help him review before. I think he passes on papers which are particularly relevant to the work of a particular student or post doc, but he also reads and reviews them himself – usually after I’ve passed on my comments, don’t know if this is deliberate or due to busy-ness… I don’t always receive the final reviews, but it seems that he combines the comments and writes it up into a proper review. I’d like to always get the final reviews as well as a chance to see what the other reviewers thought.

    I don’t yet have the confidence to make a recommendation on whether a paper should be accepted (!), but I’d like to think I can still add some value to the review by pointing out potential issues and improvements.

  7. eeke says:

    I’ve asked trainees to review, but it is always supervised, and I always end up writing the final version. When I hand them the manuscript to review, however, I always tell them to be critical, but to also put themselves in the shoes of the first author – who presumably did the experiments, wrote the paper, etc. The trainee should be asked to write the review, but to keep in mind how they would feel if they were on the receiving end of that same review.

  8. Tim says:

    I reviewed a few papers for/with my PI as a postdoc. He gave me the paper, told me what journal it was for, and I wrote a review as if for submission (complete with recommendation for/against publication, or requests for additional experiments). He read the paper too, before reading my review, then we discussed the paper and review. The first time or too, he used a few of my comments in his final submitted review (which he shared with me). By the third or fourth paper, I was good enough at it that he would use my review nearly verbatim, plus a few comments of his own.

    This was an incredibly valuable training experience for me, but the PI oversight and discussion were key aspects. If he’d simply farmed the reviews out to me, it would not have been nearly as beneficial for me (or fair to the authors).

  9. katiesci says:

    As an undergraduate my PI asked me to “review” papers a couple of times. I would provide him with my comments and who knows if he actually incorporated anything into his submitted review (or if they were worth incorporating).

    As a graduate student, I’ve been asked twice to review manuscripts by editors – not through my PI. I was asked because I have an expertise (rodent behavior) that their normal reviewers generally don’t due to the topic the journals cover. I’ve then seen the comments from the other reviewers, of course. Both times mine were in line with what the other reviewers said though they focused on the molecular aspects of the work.

    I should maybe mention that I’ve taught 1st year graduate students animal behavior and I’ve been studying and doing behavioral testing since 2009.

  10. Travis says:

    One other thing that PIs can do is to recommend their students to the journal as potential reviewers whenever the PI is unable to review the paper themselves. My former supervisor did this repeatedly with papers in my area, and led to me officially reviewing several papers during my PhD. It was a very useful experience, and I’d urge other PIs to do the same when their trainees are ready.

  11. Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

    I am currently a postdoc. My grad PI gave me manuscripts to review when I was in the final years of grad school, and as a postdoc I have reviewed several manuscripts through my postdoc PI or through requests sent by journals directly to me. When I send comments to my PI I send them in a detailed, final format and classify them as major comments and minor comments to make it easy for the PI to choose what they like and incorporate it into their final report.

    When I submit reports directly to the journal its usually succinct with a focus on 2-3 major points. I learned through experience that one need not jot down all identified caveats because even if you leave a few things out the other reviewers usually end up covering them. And yes, over time I have majorly tempered my critiques.

  12. Anon says:

    Wow, so many ethical PIs! :-) I’m a grad student, and I’ve reviewed a handful of manuscripts: a couple under my own name, and the rest for 2 different PIs. My PIs mostly submitted my reviews verbatim; they don’t really read the articles themselves. In spite of no discussion with them about my reviews, I feel this experience has been incredibly valuable for me, as I’ve gotten to see other reviews. These days, I write the kind of reviews that I would like to receive. (I agree that noob reviewers are the harshest.) I should add that I worked in industry for several years before going back for my PhD, so perhaps my PIs feel that in my case, letting me review solo for them is OK? In their shoes, however, I would have exercised more oversight.

  13. DrIgg says:

    I asked a senior PhD student to review a paper for the first time this year, as a potential training moment. I stipulated that it was a completely optional exercise. Student declined, deciding that focusing time on research and writing was more important at this time. I think that the student choose wisely.

    Participating in the review of a scientific manuscript is indeed a training moment on the process and language of peer review, but if PhD students are in a training curriculum (and they should be) that already incorporates a journal club or other journal review curriculum, they should be critiquing papers on a weekly basis. As my wise student pointed out, they can be doing better things.

    • Anon says:

      You really think this isn’t a good use of a grad student’s time? What if the grad student is a good writer and knows the literature well, so that perhaps this doesn’t suck up that much of their time? Will no one be impressed if I list the journals (all reputable) that I’ve reviewed for on my CV? Can I list those for which I’ve reviewed under my PI’s name?

      • namnezia says:

        Listing yourself as a reviewer for a journal will not really count for much as far as your CV is concerned. Unfortunately this will not buy you much currency as far as a career in science goes.

      • Anon says:

        So where do you come down on this? Should a grad student do this or not? Should a postdoc? Should you only choose to do it if you have a PI who’s willing to give you active feedback on your review or at least discuss the paper with you?

      • namnezia says:

        In my view, as far as the review process is concerned, it should be the PI (or whoever was asked by the journal to be the reviewer) who reviews the paper, and external input should be sought if the reviewer is not as familiar with some of the concepts or techniques. If the reviewer chooses to use this as a training opportunity, independent of the actual review, that’s fine. Sort of like journal club. But really, nobody cares if you have it in your CV that you’ve reviewed papers. Maybe for tenure promotions to show you have done service to your community, but it says nothing of your scientific qualifications.

      • DrIgg says:

        It is not a *poor* use of time, there are just more productive activities they can be doing. It certainly won’t hurt to have it on your CV, but sinking that effort into other things (e.g., co-authoring a nice review paper, applying for fellowships and travel grants, or planning the next kick-ass experiment) might be time better spent IMHO.

      • Dr. Noncoding Arenay says:

        Considering that your student is a senior grad student it’d be more prudent on your part as mentor to give him/her a choice of manuscripts to choose from to review, but not a choice on whether to review or not to review. Saying that they can spend that time better on something else just sounds like a lame excuse to squirrel out…how much of their precious time does it really take to review *one* paper every few months?

        Like you, my grad PI too gave me an option to review and I chose to take it up. First couple of times it felt arduous but after that initial curve it has been a relatively simple activity and also a learning opportunity during every review. I’m glad I took up that offer from my PI.

  14. outoftune says:

    PhD student here; I’ve reviewed a couple of papers for my PI, after I had published a some of my own. He looked over the papers, we discussed my comments in general, and he at least read my review before passing it on (although I don’t know if he changed it).

    Not all of the PhD students in the group go through this, although I know I’m not the only one. I think it depends on our future career interests, on having experience with writing/publishing our own papers, and the general busyness & efficiency of the person.

  15. DJMH says:

    Very useful for trainees to review papers under the PI’s guidance, and importantly to see the other reviews as well to calibrate their comments. You get a better sense of how reviewers will see your own manuscripts, and it motivates you to write a better paper…you realize how important it is to help the reader understand everything .

  16. AA says:

    I see that a number of grad students claim to have reviewed paper (solicited directly from the journal and not via the PI). Is this the norm? I thought journal editors only sent papers to postdoc-level and above for review?

    • Anon says:

      The 1st review I did under my own name was sent to me by the journal because my PI had no time to take it on, so he suggested me instead. Since then, I’ve gotten a couple more requests from different journals — I’ve no idea why they asked me. If it had been my PI’s suggestion, I think he would have asked me first, as he did the first time. Perhaps those that have served as editors can answer this question — I’m curious to know myself!

  17. Jim Thomerson says:

    My first review was given to me by the editor of the journal, also a member of my dissertation committee. The paper was based on an arithmetic mistake, which I immediately recognized. That is why he gave me the paper to review.

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