Can you discuss a paper you got to review with your lab group?

Recently I got a very interesting paper to review. I reviewed it promptly, sent in a very positive review, then realized it would be fun to discuss with our lab group. I labeled it “confidential,” then sent it around for discussion the next day. Was this ok?

It wasn’t the kind of thing we would rush out and scoop or anything. Honestly, no one is interested enough in our general area for that to be common. Anyway the work is much too hard and tedious.

Other times I have asked someone else their opinion on a tricky part of a paper, though it is increasingly rare that anyone else has time to look at the stuff I’ve agreed to review. In these cases, after discussion, I write the review alone, taking responsibility for it.

I have heard of advisers passing papers to their grad students or postdocs to review, both formally and informally. I would not want to put my name alone on someone else’s work, even if it was a review, so I haven’t done this too much, but can see it could be a valuable learning experience. Sometimes people decline reviewing, and recommend their students as referees instead. What are the accepted practises?

I think reviewing papers is an important task, a largely thankless one where all you get is grief if you are late, or superficial. I saw a statistic somewhere (sorry, I really don’t remember) that said women were more likely to review than men. But I suppose I’m getting into another topic entirely.

What exactly does confidentiality in the reviewing process mean? Certainly it is crucial that the primacy of the work be protected.  I’ve heard of people that put the wrong stuff in the manuscript, wrong chemicals or things like that so the referees can’t run out and do the work themselves. That just seems crazy to me, both doing it, and being in a field where it was necessary.

Related to this topic, is what you can take away from talks and posters. At the Animal Behavior meetings, many people provide paper copies of their posters to anyone interested. At other meetings, I have heard you are not supposed to photograph posters, or anything during talks. How do we allow sharing information while preserving the time and space each of us need to complete our work?

There is probably a balance somewhere. It probably differs by field. The balance is probably one that advances science the most, while protecting the rights of the scientists, particularly the newcomers.


About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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7 Responses to Can you discuss a paper you got to review with your lab group?

  1. jparcoeur says:

    If I have grad student or post doc who I think could help or benefit, I ask the editor for permission first. They have always approved then we both read it. We meet later to go over it and co-write the review. This does not save any time and probably takes more time, but does lead to better paper reviews and a good learning experience for the student and/or post doc.

  2. Liz says:

    I do as pjarcoeur does, because I think it’s great training and experience for a student or postdoc to get involved in peer review.

  3. Joan Silk says:

    Like other cultures, academia has its own odd set of rules and customs which everyone is supposed to follow, but not formally codified. Here is my take on the two issues that you raised.
    I don’t think it is ok to distribute papers that we have received “in review” to anyone (either interested parties or nuetral third parties), but is ok to consult about specific elements of a paper (i.e. statistical methods, theoretical arguments) with colleagues. I don’t pass papers to graduate students or colleages for reviews without the permission of the editor.
    I feel very differently about material that is presented at conferences in talks or on posters. This material has been made public by the author.

  4. Anna says:

    I just recommend my students/postdocs if I think that they have expertise relevant to the paper. I only look at their reviews if they ask me to. I think it is crucial for training, but younger people also tend to be more thorough (although sometimes overly picky), and realistically there simply aren’t enough profs willing to review to be able to get all reviews from them.

  5. Caitlin says:

    I concur with the first person. And as an editor, I sometimes ask invited reviewers if they know of a good grad or postdoc to do it essentially with the adivsor. As for sharing with the lab, I am basically in your camp Joan

  6. jeff smith says:

    When I was a grad student, my PhD advisor asked me to co-review a paper or two with him and then later recommended me as a reviewer on my own. I found it a very useful learning experience. My names were included on these reviews, so it wasn’t like he was taking credit for my work.

    My best experiences with the peer review process, both as a reviewer and an author, have been when it’s helped turn an okay paper into a pretty good one. Those experiences help balance out the ones where reviewing feels more like a duty.

  7. Jeremy Fox says:

    Speaking as both a frequent reviewer and a handling editor, I agree with jparcoeur.

    As an editor, if I ask for a review from someone, I’m asking for a review from that person, not from “that person or some member of their lab group”. It’s part of my responsibility as an editor to choose appropriate reviewers. If the reviewer I’ve invited wants to have their postdoc or grad student author co-author the review, I want to approve it first. This isn’t a matter of me only wanting reviews from faculty, it’s a matter of me wanting a review from the person whom I invited, because I invited that person for a reason. Indeed, I often invite reviews from postdocs–and would be annoyed if a postdoc just passed on the task to his or her supervisor without getting my approval first!

    If someone declines a request to review but suggests their student or postdoc instead, that’s fine of course. I, like any editor, welcome such suggestions (but it’s up to me to decide whether to follow them).

    And as a reviewer, I assume that other editors have a similar attitude, and so I behave accordingly. I rarely pass on review requests to my students though, because while it is good training, that’s true only to a point (learning to write a good review is not very difficult, and there’s lots of good advice online, so it’s not like students need tons of practice at it). There are supervisors who basically make their students do all their reviewing for them, in the name of “training”. Which isn’t about training, it’s about supervisors fobbing their work off on people below them on the academic totem pole.

    As for informally sharing a paper you’ve been asked to review with your lab group, just so they can discuss it, I think that’s a different issue. It’s against pretty much every journal’s rules, so there’s that. Now, in the case you describe, where no one in your group is going to run out and try to scoop the authors (or run out and do a follow-up study?), it’s probably not a big deal. But then again, what’s the hurry? After all, I’m sure there’s no lack of interesting published papers your lab group could be reading, including draft mss and papers in press which your colleagues have agreed to share with you. And since you work in a field in which people generally aren’t racing one another for results, it’s not as if failing to read a submitted ms is going to hold your group’s research back. Personally, I don’t share mss I’ve been asked to review with my lab group, even if they’re really interesting mss, and even though in most cases it probably wouldn’t do much harm. I’d feel like any benefit of sharing the ms would be outweighed by subtly encouraging my students to bend or break rules that they find inconvenient.

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