Should Graduate Students Referee?

Should graduate students be called upon to serve as referees for journals? I was stunned a few years back to learn of the growing use of graduate students to serve as referees—stunned until I remembered the (arguably) over-publishing practice of our profession. But now the practice of enlisting grad-student referees—to my limited and aging eyes—appears to be gaining the feel of normalcy. This worries me but I wonder whether my worry is unfounded. Thoughts would be appreciated.

That’s Jc Beall, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Tasmania, seeking opinions on having graduate students referee for academic journals. He continues:

I can think of some reasons to enlist grad-student referees:

1. So much publishing that there’s no alternative but to enlist as many recruits as possible.

2. Give the budding professional philosophers a sense of the refereeing life towards which they (as candidate professional philosophers) are heading.

3. Expose the grad students to cutting-edge ideas in the latest submitted drafts.

4. Give them a line (of what value?) on the CV.

Perhaps others can think of others. I note that (2) – (4) strike me as very, very weak reasons. (2) and (3) can be accomplished by an advisor—serving as a referee—via having the student meet with said advisor to witness (and engage in a less official fashion) in the process.

I can think of some reasons against enlisting grad-student referees:

5. They already have too little time for their own work. Why should they be given work that few want in the profession?

6. They are not yet fully in the profession, but are being asked to serve anyhow.

7. They might feel pressure to impress by their report—anonymous as it’s supposed to be. This desire to impress “the key holders” in the profession is not good for the peer-review process.

8. We may hope—for the sake of grad students—that grad-student referees are not high on journal-editor candidate lists. If that’s right, then (ceteris paribus) grad-student referees are being pulled as a last-ish resort to do what the profession considers to be very important work. (And maybe they’ll do a good job, possibly better than those already in the profession. But why should they be doing it at all?)

Perhaps others can think of others. I note that, in my view, (5) and (6) are strong reasons to steer very clear of using grad-student referees; (7) is strong if applicable; and (8) ultimately turns on empirical data concerning the process.

My question, again, is just this: should we support any grad-student refereeing in our profession? And if so, in what sort of special case(s)? (Specialization and the just-finished-dissertation-on-the-topic case will be relevant, I think. But even here, why burden the student with the official report rather than have them give the advisor their thoughts?)


UPDATE (6/2/17): The Chronicle of Higher Education looks into the question.

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