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I am a Phd student from Algeria, and I received an invitation to Review for the International Journal of Adaptive Control and Signal Processing. My Phd supervisor advised me to accept the invitation to review the paper, so I accepted the invitation.

Now from the title of the paper, it looks to be in the field that I am working in. However, when I accepted the invitation and they sent the manuscript to me, it is much more complicated than it looks from its title and touches on topics that I do not know.

What are the best responses should I give in the reply?

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    If you asked your supervisor for advice on whether to accept or not, why don't you ask them now again for how to proceed? Seems most natural to me. – damian Jun 8 '17 at 20:25
  • Perhaps your supervisor wants you to learn the topics you don't know? In any case, ask him - he is your supervisor. – xmp125a Jun 8 '17 at 20:33
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    "Touched on topics that I do not know." It wouldn't really be a research paper if it failed to do this. – zibadawa timmy Jun 9 '17 at 2:40
  • You shouldn't really accept a review based solely on the title, but also the abstract – Walter Jun 9 '17 at 10:44
  • This is, by the way, a reason why writing interdisciplinary papers isn't as great an idea as it might sound like :) – darij grinberg Jun 9 '17 at 14:07
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You have two choices, each of which I have done at different times:

  1. You can tell your advisor and the editors that now that you've seen the paper, you no longer think you could do a good job reviewing it.
  2. You can review it to the best of your ability and state clearly in the review that you have low confidence in your review. (Often, this can be indicated numerically.)
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    Presumably the "it" in the "have low confidence in it" is the quality of "your own review"? – paul garrett Jun 8 '17 at 21:25
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    In 1., it should probably be told both the advisor and the editor, rather than just one party. Also, you can leave the choice to the editor: Mention that you are not confident that you can do a good job, but that you are willing to do your best, if they still want you to. – Arno Jun 8 '17 at 21:40
  • @Arno You're right. Changed. – Ellen Spertus Jun 9 '17 at 1:37
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I (from mathematics) think that if the topic of the paper is somewhat foreign to you, you should decline the refereeing job. Referees should be substantially expert in relevant subject matter, to gauge the value of a paper. If the topic has many new features to you, and you are a novice besides, you will not be able to give any sort of competent opinion in such a direction. You should decline. That is, simply verifying low-level coherence, or line-by-line coherence, is not what refereeing is about, and if one has no higher-level competence, it is not plausible to magically instantly acquire competence thereby to produce an expert opinion. Let's be serious, folks.

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    I agree with this answer to some extent, but I think there are at least 2 other issues at play: 1) some level of 'imposter syndrome' or similar, and 2) the importance of a paper to be at least somewhat generally readable (maybe this is less common in mathematics but definitely applies to the biological sciences..). If someone is within the readership of a journal but not a perfect expert on the topic they should still be able to understand the paper to some extent. If they can't, they should communicate that to the editor with a review that says as much. – Bryan Krause Jun 8 '17 at 23:26
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    It’s not clear from the question whether the whole paper is based in things outside their expertise, or whether it’s just parts of it that are, with other parts that they’re still qualified to review. If the former, then I agree with this answer. But if the latter, then it can be fine to still review, so long as they are honest about their limitations: “I lack the expertise to comment on the proposed widget-theoretic applications of section 5, but the main gadget-theoretic material certainly constitutes a novel and important contribution…” – PLL Jun 9 '17 at 7:25
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    @BryanKrause regarding impostor syndrome, it is unfortunate that some people suffer from this, but at the same time if OP feels he/she is not qualified to referee the paper and do a good job, we have to take them at their word. What exactly are you proposing to do to mitigate the effects of impostor syndrome? Requiring all referees to undergo therapy to diagnose if they suffer from it or not...? – Dan Romik Jun 9 '17 at 8:55
  • You can play a mixed strategy, in which you decline to give a recommendation (in either direction) based on your incomplete expertise, but nevertheless try to understand the paper as well as you can and give some comments for the author and the editor. This is something I've done at least twice. Explicitly mention that you are not intending to sink the paper. There is always the danger that the editor misinterprets your hesitation as a negative appraisal, but if this happens despite your explicit assurance to the opposite, the fault lies with the editor. – darij grinberg Jun 9 '17 at 14:05

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