I don't do ghost writers

Jul 31 2014 Published by under [Education&Careers]

Like any of us, I get a lot of request to review manuscripts from different journals. It tends to come in waves where I might go a month without, then have 4 requests hit my desk all at once. I would say that I turn down roughly a third of the requests I get, either because I am too busy with other things or because I already have a few sitting on my desk. Fair or not, I tend to decline smaller journals more often, usually because the science is less compelling to me.

But rather than just decline, I almost always send an email to the AE and suggest that they send the review request to one of my trainees. I tell the AE that I will assist my lab member with the review, but I don't have time to spearhead it myself.

People have asked me why I do this rather than just accepting and having one of my people handle the review. It's true that usually the AE does not end up sending the review to a student or postdoc. But sometimes they do. And when they do, the student or postdoc gets to handle the correspondence. They get in the journal's system as a reviewer. They get their name in the head of an AE who might see their good work and remember them next time they handle a paper on the topic. They get direct recognition.

I am not a PI who like to put my name on things my people do. I want them as first authors. I want my postdocs as PIs on grant applications. I want their name out there in the position that reflects their effort and I don't understand the motivation for making them ghost writers.

13 responses so far

  • Jim Woodgett says:


    Credit where credit is due. As long as you view the trainees reviewing as part of your mentoring responsibility (not a dump), everyone wins, particularly the trainee. Builds confidence, trust and responsibility.

  • NatC says:

    Some of the journals in my field have a space to write in if someone else assisted in the review, their contact details, and their contribution. I like that for grad students, early postdocs. It means that there is an official way to include people in the process, give them credit instead of ghostwriting, and still allow for some guidance/oversight where necessary.

  • dr24hours says:

    I only heard of this recently and I am shocked that anyone thinks it's ok to have anyone other than the requested reviewer write a review. If I can do it, I do it. It would never occur to me to have someone do it for me, full stop. When I turn down a review, if I can I suggest someone.

    I've never been in the position to have students capable of doing one, but even if I were, I wouldn't ask the AE to let me have them do the review under my supervision. I'd just say, "Here's a person who could do it. I can't."

  • dr24hours says:

    Now, what NatC describes, where there's an official process, I certainly have no objection. But just having someone write my review because I'm too busy? No way.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    NatC, I've never seen that in my field, but I think it would be a nice addition. However, I think "assisted" and "did it but I glanced at it" are two different things and I wonder if people would take as acceptance on the latter.

    It is fairly common practice to have people in the lab do reviews and for the PI to sign them. Certainly not the norm, but it happens.

  • Jim Woodgett says:

    @dr24hours - there is a lot of unofficial/unattributed reviewing going on, especially in bigger labs. That's bad for all sorts of reasons, especially if the invitee has no input at all but "signs" the review. Suggestions made to the journal editor for alternatives help everyone.

    When I decline to review, I suggest to the editor other people but only rarely people in my lab. This post made me think I should do the latter more often.

  • TheNewPI says:

    I have probably done a dozen of ghost reviews in grad school and as a postdoc, and I've heard that the rule of thumb is: If the review is half a page it's a PI, if it's three pages long including typo corrections it's a postdoc. One thing that I can say, is that even the ghost writing has been a learning experience. Especially with really bad papers where I tended to be dismissive, my PI would take my comments and turn them around to be constructive criticism, which was very helpful for me to see. I didn't know it was even possible that my PI could pass the review on to me, but the giving credit to the student or postdoc for reviewing and mentoring them through the process sounds really fantastic, so I'll be sure to do this in the future.

  • Busy says:

    In my field ghost-reviewing is frowned upon. Every revision form has a field for subreviewer name which must be duly filled in if one was used.

  • qaz says:

    When I share a review opportunity with a graduate student or postdoc, I *teach* them to do the review. We each read the paper, they write the original review, and then I read their review, and we fix it together. In this way, I can remain responsible for the quality of the review (students are presumably still learning and may not have the full expertise to do a real review on their own) and the student can learn how to write a good review. In practice, it takes about half the effort of writing the full review myself because I have the student doing the initial work.

    PS. I always inform the editor that my student XYZ will be co-doing the review with me. If you don't, then you are breaking confidentiality sharing the paper-to-review with the student.

  • GMP says:

    The American Physical Society journals have an option of submitting a joint review (you have to click on "I wrote this review myself" or "I am submitting a joint review"), which is ideal for the type of situation that qaz describes (PI plus trainee reviewing). And the trainee gets into a database of reviewers.

  • AE in specialized journal says:

    As an AE I generally do forward requests to review to suggested students (if they have at least one first authorship paper). I take the recommendation as a sign of support, and suppose that it will be a learning experience. I also make sure not more than one of the reviews for a particular manuscript is made by a student.

  • Anonymous says:

    I did a number of ghost-writes for my PI -- I'm a good writer, having spent a number of years in industry before coming back to school for my PhD. I stopped, however, once I realized that I was getting zero mentoring (i.e., not even seeing the PI's minimally edited version of my review, on the occasions where it was not sent as is) and no credit whatsoever. Is there any reason that a grad student should agree to this, if the PI presents this as totally optional and the student is already quite capable of writing a good review? I know that in the past, students of great artists were "honored" by having the artist sign their name to the student's work, but this doesn't really strike me as all that fair....

  • DrugMonkey says:

    I hear Camille Claudel was a heck of a sculptor

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