Research

Grad Students as Peer Reviewers: the Pros and Cons

June 01, 2017

A good peer reviewer is hard to find. Does it make sense to expand the search to graduate students?

At some journals, editors say, that idea is an absolute nonstarter. But at others, with the number of article submissions on the rise, editors are increasingly asking graduate students to act as referees.

A discussion about the value of that practice cropped up Wednesday on the philosophy blog Daily Nous, where Jc Beall, a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, posed the question and listed some pros and cons. On the one hand, he wrote, there’s a supply-and-demand argument for enlisting graduate students: There is "so much publishing that there’s no alternative but to enlist as many recruits as possible." Beyond that, peer review offers the potential to "expose the grad students to cutting-edge ideas in the latest submitted drafts."

But Mr. Beall found more "strong reasons" to question the practice. Graduate students "already have too little time for their own work," he wrote. "Why should they be given work that few want in the profession?" What’s more, they have not yet been fully accepted into the faculty, "but are being asked to serve anyhow."

Mr. Beall said the use of graduate students as peer reviewers "appears to be gaining the feel of normalcy." Is it becoming more widespread? The Chronicle reached out to some editors to see how common the practice is.

Several said they use a graduate-student referee only when that student is clearly the go-to expert on the subject at hand. As Kai von Fintel, a linguistics professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and co-founding editor of the journal Semantics & Pragmatics, wrote on Daily Nous: "If I need a second reviewer on, say, embedded imperatives in Slovenian, and it turns out that one of the world’s foremost experts on that is an advanced graduate student … it would be a disservice to the field not to call on that expertise."

“Why should they be given work that few want in the profession?”

In a follow-up email to The Chronicle, he said that about 1 percent of his review requests go to graduate students. Mr. von Fintel does not think that the practice of using graduate students has increased significantly, but he said "the openness and interconnection of the discipline" has made it easier to find the right graduate student for a particular review.

Karl Ziemelis, chief physical sciences editor at Nature, echoed that assessment. Graduate-student referees are rare, he said in an email, "but if they have the right skill set or specific expertise that we need in a paper’s assessment, we would not rule out using someone who is still a student."

If that’s the case for sparing use of graduate-student reviewers, William G. Jacoby is willing to make the case for the practice more broadly. Mr. Jacoby, a political-science professor at Michigan State University, said he has noticed an uptick in the use of graduate-student referees. When he edited The Journal of Politics from 2001 to 2004, graduate students were used only sparingly. But at the American Journal of Political Science, where Mr. Jacoby has been editor since 2014, roughly half of the articles published are reviewed by graduate students.

"The graduate students in political science routinely present papers at conferences and they routinely submit papers," Mr. Jacoby said. "We figure if they’ve demonstrated that they’re already integrated into serious professional activities, that they’re far enough along that they should be able to review manuscripts for us."

Graduate students are trying to get published earlier in order to get a competitive edge on the job market, making it easier to find reviewers at that stage of their careers with publishing experience, Mr. Jacoby said. They also often have better knowledge of the current literature than more senior academics, he said.

"My other thought is, they like it," Mr. Jacoby added. "Unlike some of our faculty, they’re not jaded yet."

'They Don't Have the Background'

Still, some editors said the use of graduate-student referees is a hard no. At The American Historical Review, the official publication of the American Historical Association, graduate students never review articles. (They don’t write book reviews either.)

"We really aim for the highest level of scholarship," said Robert A. Schneider, the interim editor, who is a history professor at Indiana University at Bloomington. Graduate students "don’t necessarily have their Ph.D.," he said. "They don’t have the background and expertise."

That’s not to say graduate students don’t have a role in the publication. Mr. Schneider said graduate students work at the journal as editorial assistants and are involved in the process of triaging the 3,000 books that come into the building each year for potential review. They are also part of the fact-checking and copy-editing processes.

"We couldn’t do what we do without them," Mr. Schneider said.

Dale E. Miller, a philosophy professor at Old Dominion University and editor in chief of the philosophy-and-jurisprudence journal Utilitas, said he could recall asking a graduate student for a review only once. But reviewers can be hard to come by, he said. And in a response to Mr. Beall’s post on Daily Nous, he noted the benefits that could confer to a referee who hasn’t yet earned a Ph.D.

"Having the experience of serving as a reviewer may put them in a better position to produce work that their own reviewers will smile upon," he wrote.

At least one graduate student agreed. A commenter named Lelia, a fifth-year linguistics student who has reviewed for two journals, said she has enjoyed the practice, finding it "educational rather than burdensome." Peer reviewing, she said, "has helped me to develop an ‘imaginary reviewer’ in the back of my mind as I write my own papers."

Nell Gluckman writes about faculty issues and other topics in higher education. You can follow her on Twitter @nellgluckman, or email her at nell.gluckman@chronicle.com.