As editor of STSS, an Open Access journal not charging APC, I receive a fair amount of submissions, most 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 review rounds.

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. Those with potentials but still raw are 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?

What pieces, in my view, deserve full consideration? Well, in principle, 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 is the article contributing to and what is its specific, and tangible, contribution to the field, discipline, topic, 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 Survivalwhere I discuss in a section (soon to be a post) how to avoid rejection. However, in a nutshell, I would expect an article to feature:

1) An introduction spelling 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 like: 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

2) 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.

3) A literature section expanding the short statements of the introduction and identifying clear shortfalls of current debates, what they fail to explain and introducing the novel interpretations that the article introduces.

4) 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 hundreds of submissions, I identified the most common shortcomings that, I believe, should lead to desk rejection:

1) Authors put emphasis on the descriptive nature of the article (i.e. this piece will explore…). Now, where’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.

2) Underdeveloped or unjustified methodology. If your study is empirical, readers would like to know how your data was gathered and processed. This allow to understand to what extent the findings can be significant and it is possible to upscale or reproduce the study.

3) 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 on the top of what hypotheses and findings you built your article.

4) Ignorance of the broader picture. Everybody is passionate for what they are doing. But what is amazing for me is not necessarily for others. You can, however, make it interesting by explaining why your 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 Fiji 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 the Fiji per se? My journal is not the Journal of Fiji 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 anthropology but not everyone knows that he’s studying Mauritius identity. People rather read him because he has a lot to say about identity theory and his findings can be widely applied.

So, why desk rejection is good?

I once saw a nice article on identity and religion a journal and I decided to submit my article there. Only after that, I read the journal’s scope and found out that an identify focus (like mine) was acceptable only inasmuch as it was related to religion, which was not my case. I had to withdraw the article (it would get desk rejected anyway) and loose the working time I spent adjusting to the journal’s style.

Reviews are a cost. True, few journals pay reviewers but I am not talking here of monetary costs:

1) reviews cost time so, once I’ve asked a reviewer to volunteer for my journal, I will have to leave them in peace for some months

2) the more articles I send for review, the more we need to invest time in identifying and approaching new reviewers

3) if I send for review 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.

Development of a journal rests on its capacity to attract articles and to convince scholars to do peer review on a voluntary basis and then suggest your journal to their colleagues. The more you transform review into a good and gratifying experience, the more people will contribute (as authors or reviewers) to your project.

Initial screening is vital to “protect” reviewers. But screening articles has a cost. If I spend 20 minutes to glance 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) and just gave it a try.

I could instead use these five extra hours to provide more comprehensive feedback to authors who dedicated themselves to put the article in shape, follow the journal guidelines and ensure that their article has a focus close to the journal one. Or I could use that time to do the review myself, if we cannot identify anyone else.

I do not invest in a response more than the person who wrote to me invested in a question. So an article sent just as a “let’s give it a try” will get little consideration by me as editor. But my answer then will refer to this post hoping that it will be useful to put their article in shape for their next submission.

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.

Why Was My Article (Desk) Rejected?
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