Why Was My Article (Desk) Rejected?

Dr Abel Polese

As editor of STSS, an Open Access journal not charging APC, I receive a fair amount of submissions, many of which are desk rejected. The bright side is that the majority of articles sent for review are eventually accepted. It is mostly a question of time and endurance since weak articles with potential will have to go through several rounds of review. 

My principle is that in theory at least, all studies might merit publication. But some deserve to be prioritized because they are baked almost to the “publication point” whereas some others need much more work. With a limited amount of resources, our team can devote themselves only to a limited number of articles. Initially, those with potential but were still “raw” were sent back with suggestions on how they could be improved and perhaps considered for review at a later stage. But after some discussions, I decided to introduce desk rejection and this post is about why.

What articles deserve consideration?

In my view, the main raison d’etre of a study is its potential to advance scientific knowledge in some way. This could be done in a variety of manners:

  • Produce, process and present new empirical data
  • Conceptualize a new methodology
  • Apply an existing methodological approach to a new case study, country, region
  • Compare existing data for cases that have not been compared before
  • Propose new interpretation of existing data
  • Propose new theorization of an issue

Featuring just one of the above elements is enough to consider the article original and innovative. But the article should also be framed in current scholarship to allow reviewers (and then readers) to appreciate the way the piece advances current scientific knowledge. In other words, it should say “this has been done so far, this is my added value and these are the consequences of the new avenues for research identified. To be able to do so, the authors should specify what debates the article is contributing to and what is its specific, and tangible, contribution to the field, discipline, topic, or relevant theories.

How to make your article acceptable

A general approach on how to frame and structure your article can be found in “The SCOPUS diaries and the (il)logics of Academic Survival“ where I discuss how to avoid rejection. However, in a nutshell, I would expect an article to feature:

  • An introduction that spells out the article’s argument clearly while explaining how the argument builds on current debates to bring knowledge in the field a bit further.
    This could be synthesized into a correlation as follows: most research on the topic has argued that A depends on B or on B+C, our article empirically confirms (questions, rejects) this correlation by applying to the case of XYZ
  • A methodological paragraph, or a whole section, explaining how data was gathered, why the used approaches were privileged over others and what advantages one can expect.
  • A literature section that expands the short statements of the introduction and identifies clear shortfalls of current debates, what they fail to explain, and introduces the novel interpretations that the article introduces.
  • An empirical section presenting and analysing the data in a way to support the theoretical argument made in the introduction, integrated by a discussion and then drifting into a conclusion section.

Features of desk rejected articles

After a few hundred submissions, I identified the most common shortcomings that, I believe, should lead to desk rejection:

  • The authors put emphasis on the descriptive nature of the article (i.e. “this piece will explore…”). Now, there’s nothing bad in exploring something completely new, that has never been studied before. But, in that case, the topic should have the potential to become the baseline for further theorizations in the future. For instance, I would welcome the first-ever solid study on gender household relations in North Korea based on participant observation because gathering this info is virtually impossible. In contrast, if your article focuses on something that has been widely debated so far, it would be good to learn what new correlation or causal relationship results from your findings and what are its possible consequences.
  • Underdeveloped or unjustified methodology. If your study is empirical, readers would like to know how your data was gathered and processed. This allows us to understand to what extent the findings can be significant and it is possible to upscale or reproduce the study.
  • Shallow literature review. This is a concern for reviewers who might want to understand what is the starting point of your article. But it also makes the article easier to interpret for readers who will be interested to know what hypotheses and findings you built your article on.
  • Ignorance of the broader picture. Everybody is passionate about what they are doing. But what is interesting for me is not necessarily of interest to others. One can, however, make it interesting by explaining why one’s study is relevant to what they do. Most papers I reject do not engage with a broader readership.

Let’s imagine someone sends a piece on Fijian identity, somehow assuming that people will be interested. Here we have two keywords: identity, and Fiji. If someone’s focus is Fiji, they will avidly read the article. But how many readers do we have interested in a piece on Fiji per se? My journal is not the Journal of Fijian Studies so, if I want my readers to read the piece, the identity part should engage with a broader public, interest readers from other regions by seeking a dialogue with social and identity theory. Eriksen is a world-famous anthropologist, but not everyone knows that he’s studying Mauritian identity. People read him primarily because he has a lot to say about identity theory and his findings can be widely applied.

So, why is desk rejection good? (and for whom)

I once saw an interesting article on identity and religion in a journal and I decided to submit my article there. Only later did I read the journal’s scope, and realise that an article with “identity” as focus (like mine) was acceptable to them only inasmuch as it was related to religion, which was not the case with my submission. I had to withdraw the article (I presume it would get desk-rejected anyway), and lose the hours I spent adjusting the paper to the journal’s style guide. 

From an editor’s view, reviews are costly. Yes, very few journals pay reviewers but I am not talking here of monetary costs alone:

  1. reviews cost time, so once an editor has asked a reviewer to volunteer for their journal, they must leave them in peace for some months.
  2. the more articles an editor sends for review, the more they need to invest time in identifying and approaching new reviewers.
  3. if, as Editor, I send to a reviewer an article that is too weak, the reviewer will most likely form a bad opinion about the journal and its management. Chances are that they will not accept another review and will not suggest my journals to their colleagues.

Desk rejection may also benefit authors in at least two ways. First, you receive an answer straight away. It might not be the answer you want, but being quick, it allows you to submit to the next journal with no delay (or to reflect on what was missing and then resubmit). By force of this, it decreases the number of articles the editorial team needs to deal with, thus allowing deeper engagement with the articles that are instead retained for review. As a rejected author, this changes little to you but it increases the functionality of the journal. This means that the editorial board will be able to invest more time and work with you to help improve your piece.

The development of a journal rests on its capacity to attract articles, to convince scholars to peer-review on a voluntary basis, and their suggesting the journal to their colleagues. The more one transforms the review into a good and gratifying experience, the more people will contribute (as authors or reviewers) to one’s project.

Initial screening is vital to “protect” reviewers. But screening articles has opportunity costs. If I spend 20 minutes glancing through an article to decide whether it’s worth sending for review, that’s 10 hours of work every 30 articles. And if, say, half of them do not even loosely match the interest of the journal, I have just “donated” 5 hours of my time to authors who did not bother doing their homework (find out what the journal is about). 

I could instead use these five extra hours to provide more comprehensive feedback to authors who dedicated themselves to putting the article in shape, following the journal guidelines and ensuring that their article has a focus that aligns with that of the journal. Or I could use that time to do the review myself if we cannot identify anyone else.

I do not invest in my response, more effort than a person who writes to me invests in their question. So an article sent to the journal with a “let’s give this a try” attitude will get little consideration from me as editor. However, my answer them will refer to this post hoping that it will be useful to put their article in shape before their next submission.

Dr Abel Polese is a researcher, trainer, writer, manager and fundraiser. He is the author of “The SCOPUS diaries and the (il)logics of Academic Survival: A Short Guide to Design Your Own Strategy and Survive Bibliometrics, Conferences, and Unreal Expectations in Academia”, a reflection on academic life, research careers and the choices and obstacles young scholars face at the beginning of their career. You can find him on Twitter at @Abiquitous and @scopusdiaries.

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