Can PhD Students Write Review Papers?

By Neuroskeptic | July 31, 2017 1:47 pm

In a post earlier this month, I discussed a new Journal of Neuroscience paper on statistical power in neuroscience. That paper was a response to and reanalysis of a previous article, and in my post I noted my surprise that the new paper hadn’t appeared in Nature Reviews: Neuroscience (NRN), where the original paper had been published.


It turns out there’s a bit of a backstory here. According to the senior author of the new paper, Jon Roiser, his group did want to submit to NRN, but they were informed that this wasn’t possible, in part because the first author, Camilla Nord, was still a PhD student. Roiser later stated that PhD students aren’t just barred from being first authors, but any authors, at NRN.

When I heard about this policy, I was surprised. It doesn’t seem to be widely publicized – in fact, I can’t find any other references to it online. So I wrote to NRN to ask for a statement. A spokesperson for Nature Reviews replied, saying that:

The Nature Reviews Neuroscience authorship policy does not exclude authors that are PhD students.

The statement goes on to discuss the editorial policies of Nature Review journals, a document which makes no mention of a bar on PhD students.

I note however that this doesn’t exclude the possibility that some kind of ‘no PhD students’ rule existed at NRN in the past e.g. in 2015, which is when Nord et al. wrote to them inquiring about submission. I have seen evidence from a number of sources suggesting the previous existence of such a policy.


Was this a reasonable policy? I don’t think so, although I can see why NRN might have found it attractive. You see, PhD students have a habit of writing review papers. This is because most students have to write a ‘literature review’ which serves as the introduction to their PhD thesis, and this material can easily be converted into a review paper.

These reviews are generally not overly insightful. During my PhD, I wrote a review paper and had it rejected by three journals before eventually giving up on it. At the time I thought it was brilliant, but in retrospect I can see it was shallow and of interest to very few people. That’s the benefit of experience. Few PhD students are capable of giving a mature and informative overview of a field.

So perhaps NRN found themselves inundated by submissions from eager PhD students and decided to cut the problem off at its source? If so, it’s understandable, but still unfair. It’s the job of a journal to judge submissions on their merits. Also, if this was what happened, Nord et al.’s paper should have been a clear exception to the rule, as it wasn’t a literature review but rather a meta-analysis.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: papers, science, select, Top Posts
  • CL

    Such a policy is neither understandable or justified. There are plenty of very smart, experienced and and insightful non-PhD scientists out there, and excluding them based on academic title is just in-grpup favoritism

    • Sys Best

      There should be an established process that defines a scientist and his/her credentials, entering a PhD program is one of them, where a supervisor, senior scientist, guarantees for the student’s research work, there is the PhD committee made of several faculty members, so favoritism, nepotism is less likely, and the institution has oversight, follows policies, there is an IRB, and so on. There are very few scientist positions not requiring a PhD (and typically from accredited programs) or at least strong publication record. I don’t know too many PhD students that have more than a couple original research articles.
      So, you are saying there are self-made non-PhD scientists that study by themselves, read everything in the field and can write reviews and primers and guidelines. Maybe there are some, plenty no way.

      There are also plenty of non-MD health professionals, like nurses, that could diagnose you from your symptoms but I think you’d rather have your MD telling you what’s wrong with you and what you should take or do.

      • CL

        There are plenty of PhD´s writing literature reviews that have no idea what they are talking about, just read some lower impact reviews, or do a plagiarism test and you will find lots of copy-paste papers.

        Your MD-nurse argument is not applicable to the topic of scientific publications.

        The whole thing about an established academic hierarchy and processes with mentors and what not is an example of an old power structure that may have some merits, but does not guarantee good science.

        Why not judge publications on their merits? A good editor can skim an abstract and methods section of a paper in 5-10 minutes to determine if it should be further considered.

        The academic level of the authors, or the percieved respectability of their home institutions are probably not that reliable indicators. There are lots of examples where blinded peer-review creates a more fair evaluation, and bias is removed.

    • Squizzlemonkey

      That’s not quite what they seem to be doing. It’s actually people currently undertaking a PhD who are being limited by this supposed policy. As the article says, this is likely because most PhD students are under pressure to get published by the time they finish their thesis and they see an easy route to achieving that goal as repurposing the literature review they did for their thesis introduction.

      I can see this from both perspectives, it’s entirely reasonable for a PhD student to be capable of performing an insightful literature review based on the topic of their thesis. However, this is not what the literature review performed as part of most Introductions to a PhD thesis will be.

      To me there is blame on both sides, with too many eager PhD’s flooding the editorial boards at NRN and the editorial board over-compensating by putting place a blanket policy (official or not) on PhD student authorship.

  • Uncle Al

    When did intelligence, competence, pertinence, and creativity require a license to practice? Freeman Dyson is a scofflaw! “Closed shop” union labor does not guarantee quality.

    …Science is philosophically invalid for postulating an objective reality immune to perception, history, and political propinquity.

    …Science is patriarchal oppression, then invalid for its denial of social intent.

    …“women’s lived experiences, particularly experiences of (caring) work, is the beginning of scientific inquiry.”

  • Paul Rain

    It sounds like the quality of acceptable submissions wasn’t up to the point where it justified sorting through the chaff.

    Perhaps a volunteer panel of aggressively competitive PhD students could volunteer to prescreen their peers work?

  • saymwah

    If the problem is a deluge of crappy review papers from PhD students, why not just require them to be submitted by established scientists on behalf of the student? The dissertation advisor is going to have to read the lit review anyway, so presumably they would know whether it was of publishable quality.

    • CL

      Sounds like a cheap way for established scientists to get publications. (I know this happens a lot…)

      Co-authorship typically should require:

      Substantial contributions to the conception or design of the work; or the acquisition, analysis, or interpretation of data for the work; AND

      Drafting the work or revising it critically for important intellectual content; AND

      Final approval of the version to be published; AND

      Agreement to be accountable for all aspects of the work in ensuring that questions related to the accuracy or integrity of any part of the work are appropriately investigated and resolved.

      • saymwah

        Not co-authorship, submission on behalf of someone junior. I know several journals in my field do this.

        • CL

          never heard of that, why?

    • Neuroskeptic

      Or you could say “no papers from PhD students alone, but reviewers with a PhD student and at least one more senior author will be considered.”

  • SIWOTI_syndrome

    Hey, a topic I can speak about from experience! I myself published a first-author paper in NRN when I was a PhD student (pre 2015). So I can tell you that it IS possible. THAT SAID, we did get push back from the editors. Their initial response was very positive about the paper, but they requested that we resubmit it without my involvement since I was still a grad student. Their rationale, which was not unreasonable, was that people turn to NRN to hear from experts in their fields, and it is implausible that a grad student could be described as such. My co-authors (several of whom are VERY prominent in their fields) obviously balked at this, and we began to think about other places to submit. NRN eventually relented on their request, and the paper moved forward with me at the front. So I think it’s safe to say that this isn’t so much an editorial policy as it is an editorial preference (and one I think they’re justified in having). Would I have eventually been let in if I didn’t have prominent co-authors? Maybe not. But the paper has been heavily cited since its publication, so I have to think that ultimately NRN didn’t regret their decision.

    • SIWOTI_syndrome

      Admittedly the possibility exists that such a policy went into place after my paper went to press. I hope I’m not the one who ruined it for everyone else!

    • SIWOTI_syndrome

      And to clarify, when I say they’re justified in having the preference, I mean it in the way that anyone can prefer anything they’d like. Obviously any journal wants to publish work by the most well-established researchers they can. But I firmly agree that to block publication of an otherwise-deserving article just because it has a student attached to it is bad science and bad policy.

    • Neuroskeptic

      Thanks for your comment! I have seen a lot of evidence that there was at least an editorial preference against PhD students at one period; but your experience suggests that it wasn’t a cast-iron policy in all cases.

  • Bob Kentridge

    One of my PhD students, Susanne Schuett, had a single author paper in Nat Rev Neurology.

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  • TiMi KEhiNdE

    Good reason. But I have also discovered that writing a review article on one’s dissertation topic actually creates a deeper level understanding. Hence, i think PhD students are actually the most qualified to write a thorough review article because they discovering (and questioning) as they write due to limited understanding. This does not just help the student but also the readers that are also trying to understand or think they understand the topic but ignored vital information.

    That’s just my take on this.

  • TiMi KEhiNdE

    Good reason. But I have also discovered that writing a review article on one’s dissertation topic actually deeper level understanding. Hence, I think PhD students are actually the most qualified to write a thorough review article because they discovering (and questioning) as they write due to limited understanding. This does not just help the student but also the readers that are also trying to understand or think they understand the topic but ignored vital information.



No brain. No gain.

About Neuroskeptic

Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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