Achilleas Kostoulas

Applied Linguistics & Language Teacher Education

Red pen on paper with corrections

How to avoid desk rejections

When you submit an article to an academic journal, you can expect it to go through a process of peer review, and hopefully get published after a few rounds of revisions. However, quite often what happens instead is that the editor writes back saying that the article will not be considered at all. This is what is called an editorial (or desk) rejection. This article should help you to avoid desk rejections.

  1. What is a desk rejection
  2. Why do editors desk reject manuscripts?
  3. The cover letter
  4. In conclusion
  5. More to read

Disclaimer: Much of what you will read is most directly relevant to my own fields, i.e., Applied Linguistics and language teaching. This is because much of my expertise comes from publishing and editing in these fields. I am aware that there will be disciplinary differences, and I have tried to accommodate these by drawing on the perspectives of editors in other fields as well. You will find a couple of useful articles at the end of the post.

What is a desk rejection

A desk rejection is a quick decision, by the editorial staff of a journal, to not forward a manuscript for review. There are several different reasons why an editor might desk-reject a paper, but there are two motivations underlying all these decisions.

The first one is to conserve the journal’s resources. It is increasingly hard to find volunteers to review any manuscript, and soliciting too many reviews is not a good use of a very limited resource. Secondly, a desk rejection means that authors can move on with their paper and find a more suitable place to publish it, with or without revisions. Although a desk rejection may seem harsh, it is a kinder outcome than a rejection several weeks or months later.

Jon Billsberry, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Management Education (JME), makes the following useful comment:

Contrary to popular belief, editors do not like rejecting submissions. […] We want to help people develop their manuscripts to publishable standards. We love reading new and interesting ideas, and we live in fear of “White Page Fever,” the terrible dread that one day there will be nothing to print. Our main concern is to find papers to publish, and the fact that half of our submissions so miss the mark that they cannot even be sent out for review means that a huge pool of talent is misdirecting its efforts.

The number of papers that do not make it through this screening is surprisingly high. Highly selective journals reportedly desk-reject as many as 88% of the manuscripts they receive. In my own experience, as (former) editor of Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching, the rate was not quite as high, but it was still frustrating. What was even more frustrating was that many of the rejections were due to very avoidable mistakes.

Why do editors desk reject manuscripts?

Now that we know what a desk rejection is, let’s see what might cause an editor to reject a manuscript without even sending it to reviewers.

The manuscript is not a good fit

In my experience, the single most common reason why an editor might desk-reject a manuscript is poor fit with the journal. This does not mean that the manuscript is bad! It’s just very different from the articles that the journal usually publishes. There are three possible types of mismatch between the manuscript and the journal: (a) poor fit of submission type; (b) poor fit of scope; and (c) poor fit of content.  

Poor fit of submission type

In the most extreme cases, these will be manuscripts that are completely disconnected from the genres and types of papers that the journal readers expect from the journal. For instance, on two separate occasions, I had to reject entire MA dissertations found their way in our inbox, because the journal I was editing simply did not publish such manuscripts.

Every journal will have a range of publication options: some exclusively publish empirical articles, others welcome reviews and reflective pieces, some invite short position papers and so on. You should be able to find information about the types of publications that a journal welcomes by reading the ‘information for authors’ section of their webpage, and by browsing recent issues.

Poor fit of scope

Some less flagrant cases of poor fit concern the scope of the article. Journals tend to specialize in particular niches, and they will prioritise articles that are a good match for scope.

Eileen Lake, the editor of Research in Nursing and Health, notes that manuscripts may be rejected for being too narrow or too broad. For instance, if you’re submitting an article that describes general education policy to a journal that specializes in English Language Teaching, editors may reject it for being too broad. Conversely, an article with too tight a focus on a specific country will be hard to publish in a journal with an international scope.

Poor fit of content

Authors who submit their work to a journal tend to have similar research interests; they tend to share a common discourse space; they tend to build on each others’ work. When considering a manuscript for publication, an editor will have to make a judgment about how well the new paper will fit in this discourse space. Does it discuss similar topics? Does it connect with what other people publish about? If the answer to such questions is unclear, the manuscript risks desk-rejection.

You may have come across some well-meaning advice, that you can demonstrate ‘fit of content’ by citing extensively from the journal. Sometimes, this strategy works (not least, because it helps to raise the journal’s citation count). However, you should be careful with this advice. Indiscriminate citation can only weaken your paper and make it more likely to face rejection.

What you can do to avoid desk rejections

  • Read the ‘Aims and Scope’ information of potential journals. This should be on the journal homepage or under the ‘about us’ section.
  • Compare the potential journals and write one-sentence justifications why the article fits this particular journal. Decide which of these statements is most convincing and submit accordingly.
  • If you are unsure about a paper, you could contact the journal editors and ask for advice. Not all of them will answer, but you have nothing to lose.

The manuscript is not the right length

Another common reason why an editor might desk-reject a paper is because it is too long or (less commonly) too short.

Most academic publishing nowadays is online, so paper costs are no longer a constraint. Nevertheless, journals have word limits for good reason: this includes respecting the reviewers’ time and keeping typesetting and proofreading costs consistent. It is therefore very important that you respect the word or page limit suggested by the journal (give or take some reasonable margin).

It is also very important that you do not try any student tricks to fool the word counter, such as saving tables or chunks of text as images, or deleting spaces between words. Such practices alert editors that you are acting in bad faith invite much closer scrutiny than would otherwise be the case.

A paper that is too short can still be problematic, but for different reasons. Typically, an editor may desk reject such a manuscript if they feel that crucial information is missing or underdeveloped. Experienced editors will know that if such a paper moves forward to peer-review, it will take more rounds of revisions than typical (e.g., one requesting additional content, and one or more evaluating such content). They may therefore decide to conserve resources by asking you to develop the paper more.

What you can do to avoid desk rejections

  • Make sure you find the recommended word count.
  • Make sure you understand what this number means (e.g., with or without references, appendixes, etc.)
  • Note that sometimes journals will have different submission lengths for various types of manuscripts (e.g., articles vs. reviews)
  • Remember that articles tend to ‘bloat’ after review, so consider aiming for under the recommended word count.

The manuscript is not ready for publication

Some manuscripts will be rejected because the author(s) have not brought them up to publishable standards. Jon Billsberry describes these submissions as follows:

If you really want a quick rejection, just send in an abstract or a few pages containing some notes. Or write it as if it were a book chapter or a section from a textbook. Or write with one-sentence paragraphs, unexplained diagrams, missing tables, endless bullet point lists, poor grammar, spelling mistakes, and so on and so forth.

In my experience, such manuscripts tend to come from two types of authors: very senior academics and beginners. In the former case, this practice represents an abuse of the publishing system, because the authors rely on their status to circumvent the usual quality checks. But the latter case also is an abuse of the peer-review, because the authors’ mentors or supervisors delegate the guidance of their students to the reviewers.

It’s hard to tell what exactly the quality threshold is for a paper to move forward to peer-review. Some editors are more patient than others, and some publishers may be more inclusive, especially it they levy Article Processing Charges. However, as a matter of principle and respect, you should make sure that every paper you submit represents the best that you can write.

What you can do to avoid desk rejections

  • Make sure you get feedback from a peer or experienced mentor before you submit.
  • Read the Author Guidelines provided by the journal, and make an effort to comply.
  • Proofread your work carefully. Better yet, have someone proofread it for you.
  • Even if the journal accepts manuscripts in any citation style, make sure that your referencing is complete and consistent.

The manuscript is not convincing

I need to be blunt about this. Sometimes, manuscripts will be rejected because the research they report is trivial or repetitive. Julian Edge, one of my doctoral supervisors, used to say that there’s a huge divide between writing because you have something to say, and writing because you have to say something. The latter kind of writing is much likelier to be desk-rejected.

Often however, manuscripts might be rejected because the editors is not convinced that the author has something worthwhile to say. Such manuscripts tend to have two types of problems: (a) unclear warrant and (b) unclear ‘now what?’.

Unclear warrant

The warrant of a publication is the reason why it was written, and by extension why readers should invest time reading it. Exactly what counts as sufficient warrant for a study is hard to define, and different editors will have different criteria. However, you can improve your chances of moving forward to peer-review if you help editors understand what makes your research worthwhile.

An example

I will try to explain this using a (fictional) example. Suppose you have written an article reporting your study on reading strategies employed by Arab-speaking students learning English as an L2. In your thoroughly written literature review, you mention multiple similar studies that have been conducted with people who are L1 speakers of Modern Greek, French, German, and Norwegian. When I read this literature review, from the perspective of an editor, I am already beginning to feel uncomfortable: what’s the point of yet another study on the same topic?

But if you take the time to explicitly remind readers that Arabic is written from right to left and that there have been no studies with such a population? Now there is a warrant for the study: if the findings differ from the existing literature, then your study tells us something about how these strategies work. And even if the findings replicate what is already known, the article is still important because it shows that the effect of the studies does not depend on the script.

When I was starting out with publishing, I often struggled with this aspect of writing. I assumed that, since my colleagues, supervisor and I could all understand the importance of my research, then so should academic editors. In my eyes, it seemed patronizing to have to spell things out. Other writers struggle with talking about themselves and their work, especially in flattering ways, because they view this as being immodest. Both attitudes are unhelpful here.

Unclear ‘now what’

Articles that report on courses, learning programmes and other teaching innovations are often desk-rejected being too vague. Very often, authors limit themselves to presenting the course or programme and explaining what is innovative about it. After reading all this information, just when one is beginning to wonder if the course or programme works, they come across the statement that “the evaluation of the programme lies outside the scope of this article”. This is very unfortunate because it limits the usefulness of the article for any readers.

A similar problem that often leads to desk-rejection of such reports is the lack of relevance to readers. Language education is well past the stage when we thought that a single method or technique can be unproblematically transferred from one context to another. This means that even if a teaching innovation can be shown to be successful in one place, its relevance to readers in other settings is not self-evident. This does not mean that such reports lack merit. What it does mean, however, is that authors should invest some time helping readers understand how work in their settings can inform teaching and learning elsewhere.  

What you can do to avoid desk rejections

  • Explicitly, persistently and consistently message what is new and important about your research. There are three places where you should do this, namely: (a) the cover letter, (b), the abstract, and (c) the article itself (introduction and conclusion).
  • Highlight what is unique about your research or teaching context, which makes it worth investigating. Also highlight what commonalities with other cases, which makes reading your article worth the readers’ time.

The cover letter

Much of the advice above refers to how you can prepare your manuscript in order to minimize the risk of a desk-rejection. However, there is another overlooked opportunity that you can use to convince editors about the merits of your paper: the cover letter.

The cover letter is a short note that accompanies your submission. This is often a very perfunctory piece of writing (“Please find attached my article. Regards.”). Nowadays, you could easily delegate writing such a letter to AI, or even omit it entirely. However, if you do so, you are missing the chance to ‘sell’ your manuscript.

Some things that you could include in the cover letter are the following:

  • A brief explanation of why you think this study is a good fit for this particular journal;
  • Any relevant information about ethics that will help reassure the editor that all the boxes have been ticked (e.g., whether it has been approved by an ethics board);
  • An explicit statement that the paper has not been published elsewhere and is not being considered for publication at another journal.

In addition, you can use the cover letter to make the editor aware of people who would be unsuitable reviewers (e.g., because they have already given you feedback on early drafts).

In conclusion

If you have landed on this page looking for advice on submitting an article, I wish you good luck with your submission. I hope that the information above has been of some help. Please feel free to share this article with anyone who might find it useful. Also, if you have any more good tips on avoiding desk rejections, do share them in the comment box!  

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About me

I am an applied linguist specializing in language teacher education. I currently teach at the University of Thessaly in Greece. Previous affiliations included the University of Manchester (UK) and Graz (Austria). Among other things, I used to be an editor for Studies in Second Language Learning and Teaching. I have published multiple books on ELT/TESOL and related fields (full list here).

About this article

This article was originally published on 13 February 2014, as a series of bullet-points which expanded on Jon Billsberry’s article. The post was substantially revised on 22 August 2023.  






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