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I have been requested to present a complex paper outside of my own expertise at an upcoming conference. I have rejected this invitation on two occasions stating reasons such as:

  • Not my expertise
  • My first Conference
  • I'm not an author on the paper
  • I don't understand the paper
  • and so on...

Apparently people present other people papers in Computer Science all of the time at conferences, but surely these people are knowledgable on this subject? Would it be inappropriate for someone to present a paper, for the reasons listed above? I'm not feeling like a team player right now.

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    Who is asking you to present the paper? – Wolfgang Bangerth Aug 27 '15 at 15:27
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    I tagged this with CS, since I think that's what you're talking about; please correct if I am wrong. – jakebeal Aug 27 '15 at 16:55
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    @PeteL.Clark Yes, a couple of conferences won't put the papers into their proceedings unless presented. I can't really answer your final question. It seems bad to me if you or none of the authors know you can't present it. I just happen to be published in the same conference. – ham-sandwich Aug 27 '15 at 18:22
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    @PeteL.Clark Exclusion of non-presented papers is standard IEEE policy, as explained on this page. – jakebeal Aug 27 '15 at 19:20
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    ... However, as I cannot resist adding a bit more speculation here, note that what a researcher sees as "valuable to attend" and what their funding agency sees as "valuable to attend" may be two very different things. Getting a refund for a compulsory travel can be considerably easier than getting a refund for an optional travel. The same may apply to invitation-based visa and other administrative hurdles. Lastly, the Q&A round at the end of each talk can serve as a means of quality control. In that light, looking exclusively at what the authors of the paper want would be counterproductive. – O. R. Mapper Aug 27 '15 at 20:40
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First of all, I think that in your particular case, it was a right course of action to reject the "invitation".

To answer the general question

Would it be inappropriate for someone to present a paper, for the reasons listed above?

let's look at the single reasons one by one:

Not my expertise

A somewhat valid point. You probably shouldn't be talking about something way outside of your area of expertise. However, if the topic is at least marginally connected to yours, it could also be argued that you should not enclose yourself in your personal bubble, but try to get somewhat acquainted with as many other topics as possible. In general, despite researching specific questions, an educated person should have some wide knowledge, and maybe knowing about such another topic even provides you with opportunities for expanding your own research into unforeseen directions.

My first Conference

This. In my opinion, this is the strongest point in this list. You don't have any conference experience yet, not only giving talks, but also listening to how conference talks work at all. As so often, it is advisable to start out somewhat simple, and presenting a paper you are not fully knowledgeable about yourself is probably not a good way.

I'm not an author on the paper

That is not a valid reason. As you said, people present on behalf of others all the time, and there are various reasons why the actual authors might not make it to a conference personally1.

I don't understand the paper

Acutely, that is a severe issue, though it could be said (also referring to the first point) that in that case, you just need to spend some more time trying to figure it out (and having the original authors help you understand it!). So, it is a somewhat valid reason, but given a little more time, it is an issue that can be mitigated.

A word on your statement

surely these people are knowledgable on this subject?

No. Sometimes, not at all, which is unfortunate, as like that, the Q&A session degrades into nothing but: "Next question, please." - "... ?" - "Sorry, I didn't write the paper." However, if the presenter is at least partially knowledgeable, in a way that they prepared the presentation well (together with the original authors!), it is fully acceptable if the presenter cannot provide an answer for every very specific question, as long as they can sufficiently describe the gist of the research.

1: Scheduling conflicts, visa issues, illness, or restrictive travel funds come to mind.

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    "I'm not an author on the paper" - "That is not a valid reason." I disagree. Of course it does not mean that the OP can't present a paper just because he is not one of the authors, but the OP is certainly under no obligation to present a paper that he isn't the author of, even if he is experienced and understands the topic and paper well. It's maybe not the best reason, but it is hardly an invalid reason to reject presenting a paper. – xLeitix Aug 27 '15 at 13:19
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    @xLeitix: Well, I answered the question "Would it be inappropriate to present the paper?", not "Would it be appropriate to reject presenting the paper." – O. R. Mapper Aug 27 '15 at 13:27
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    Outside CS it would be highly unusual for the presenter not to be an author (@xLeitix) – Chris H Aug 27 '15 at 15:48
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    @ChrisH That is interesting. Thank you for sharing :-) – ham-sandwich Aug 27 '15 at 18:24

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