I met someone at a conference and we had a good conversation. We emailed after for a bit. He is the associate editor of a reasonably well respected journal. He asked me to referee a paper and I just said yes without thinking much about it - he went to my talk and we talked for awhile so I assumed he knew what I knew well enough.

Now that I'm looking at the paper I have no clue what to say about it. I work in probability and this paper is straight up statistics. It uses a lot of jargon I am unfamiliar with and I have nothing valuable to say about the paper.

How should I proceed? I feel like my only honest review is "I don't know enough to judge the merit of this paper". I actually don't even like much of statistics and I'm uninterested in teaching myself the necessary statistics to understand this paper (which would require significant time and effort on my part).

  • 1
    How long has it been since you accepted the invitation to referee the paper?
    – Anyon
    Mar 28, 2023 at 20:02
  • It was a couple months ago. I looked at it a bit then and thought it was kind of far, and now I'm looking at it again (there was a deadline of three months) it's very far from me.
    – user167806
    Mar 28, 2023 at 20:03
  • Related: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/193135/…
    – Sursula
    Mar 29, 2023 at 7:14
  • I think making everyone wait a few months isn't great but it's too late now, just tell the editor that you can't review the manuscript after all.
    – Tom
    Mar 29, 2023 at 16:36

2 Answers 2


Send an email back saying that, having looked at the paper, you don't have the experience to comment on it.

It is more common than you think. The editor has other options. And it is better if you don't hold up the process.

And, yes, as user Anyon notes, the editor is due an apology unless you have been working diligently on the paper for those two months. But, politeness suggests it would be wise anyway.

  • 7
    This is the right course of action, but I think that email should probably also include an apology given that OP has potentially already held up the process by a couple of months.
    – Anyon
    Mar 28, 2023 at 20:15
  • @Anyon, indeed. I missed that comment initially.
    – Buffy
    Mar 28, 2023 at 20:18
  • 1
    Is this actually more common than one might think? I don't think I've encountered this more than once or twice in the past several years I've been an editor. Usually when the reviewer says they're unqualified to review an article, it's before acceptance. The broader example of a reviewer declining to review an article after accepting it (for whatever reason, e.g. something time-consuming came up) happens more often, but is still not common.
    – Allure
    Mar 29, 2023 at 0:59
  • 1
    @Allure For the standard e-mail reviewer invitation, you usually get to read the abstract before clicking accept, and that's generally enough to determine your competency. However, I've gotten a few "conference cocktail party invites by editor," like the OP, and those seem to result in the article getting e-mailed directly, or at least put in the system as an accept.
    – user71659
    Mar 29, 2023 at 5:48

The editor could be legitimately annoyed by the delay. But what are your options? 'Fess up and apologise. Is anything else even remotely conceivable?

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