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I have recently started my PhD studies. My advisor, as member of a program committee, has delegated a the review of a conference paper to me. This is my second peer review.

Since I have not done research in the area of this paper, I find it very hard to review. Not only does it require much effort for me to grasp the content. First and foremost, I do not think that being able to understand the content of a paper is sufficient for reviewing it. Ideally, reviewing would mean judging the paper for its scientific merit as a peer, considering content, presentation, relevance and relation to other work in the area. Especially the latter aspects I feel unable to judge.

I consider declining to review, but this seems like a drastic step with conflict potential. Certainly, there is an incentive to formally complete the assignment and write a review of little value to the authors, the venue and the scientific community in general. Would it be acceptable or prudent to decline?

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In addition to gerrit's answer (which I completely agree with), if you are in the situation where it would be hard to decline (conferences sometimes have very short deadlines), you might review this paper as a "non-expert".

It's indeed quite common (at least in Computer Science) that the review should indicate both the score (i.e., reject/accept) and the confidence of the reviewer. If you indicate a low confidence score, then your decision has a lower weight than those with higher confidence. In that case, you can review the paper from a more global point of view (like any non-specialist reader would see the paper): is the problem well explained, does the solution seem consistent with the problem description, is the language correct, etc.

Ideally, it would be better to decline the review, but if the paper is also reviewed by two or more experts, then your review could bring a good non-expert vision. If the paper is reviewed only by non-experts, then either the paper is off-topic, and it's the author's problem, or the PC chair didn't do the job correctly.

  • 1
    +1 for the confidence factor. A nice way to say "I do not know, don't take my comments seriously" – seteropere Mar 20 '13 at 9:07
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Yes. It is much better to decline as soon as you realise you're not up to the review, than to write a useless review.

Normally, you first get an abstract based on which you accept or decline. If you accept, the editor may be annoyed if you decline based on seeing the manuscript, but sometimes it's inevitable; only so much can be judged from the abstract. If you do decline, however, you should let the editor know as soon as possible.

I recently read a publicly reviewed paper where both reviews clearly did not really understand the topic, but still handed in a review. To me it was quite clear that the paper needed a statistician, which neither of the reviewers were. One reviewer didn't get much further than pointing out that the introduction was too long, with not a single comment on 10 pages of detailed description of advanced statistical methods. When reading the reviews, I found it a bit embarrassing that the peer review was so clearly insufficient, and the paper virtually got published without proper peer review.

I know someone who accepted his very first paper review, only to discover when he received the manuscript that it had 130 pages. He returned it to the editor.

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Since your advisor assigned the paper to you, I suspect that your advisor believed that you were either able to do the review, or capable of getting the information you need to do the review, or simply wanted a second opinion.

It's rather normal for advisors to assign to their students papers they get from being on committees. A conscientious advisor will also review the paper by himself/herself though and double-check the student's work, as well as providing feedback to the student about how to write good reviews.

Thus, in your case, your review may not actually go back to the authors - your advisor would take your review and his/her own review and integrate them (or write a new one). In that case, I would do your best to review the paper and then speak with your advisor about how to improve.

If however you still feel extremely uncomfortable about reviewing the paper, I would speak with your advisor about it. Your advisor may have some advice about where to look or what to consider; alternatively you might get a different paper as well.

(Note: If you were reviewing as a PC member or as a journal reviewer, I would instead agree with gerrit above and decline the review.)

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