Red pen on paper with corrections

How to avoid desk rejections

When you submit a manuscript for publication in an academic journal, it is initially screened by the journal’s editor-in-chief who will decide whether it meets submission requirements. A large number of papers (up to 88% in some journals) do not pass this screening, and are therefore not forwarded to reviewers. These are called editorial (or ‘desk’) rejections.

In his latest editorial, Jon Billsberry, the editor-in-chief of the Journal of Management Education (JME), shares several tips that can help prospective authors avoid some of the most common causes for a desk rejection. He writes:

One of my greatest sorrows as editor is that so many manuscripts we receive are rejected at the first hurdle. About half of all submissions that come in are immediately “desk rejected” by me or one of the associate editors. 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.

In brief, Billsberry recommends that authors should pay attention to ten points, which I have summarised below while occasionally interjecting some comments of my own, in brackets:

  1. Domain: Do not send papers on topics that the journal doesn’t publish. [You’d think that this is obvious, but lack of fit is reportedly the most common reason for a desk rejection in other journals as well.]
  2. Contribution: Make sure your paper advances knowledge in some way, rather than re-iterates what has already been written elsewhere.
  3. Length: Do not exceed word limits, and do not use student tricks such as small font and spacing to conceal the actual length of the paper. [Even though online journals do not place the same premium on space as print journals did, papers that significantly exceed the word limit place an unjustifiable burden on reviewers.]
  4. Underdeveloped manuscripts: Your paper should be ready for publication when submitting, i.e., fully developed, proofread etc. [You may have been advised to submit early drafts of a paper, with the expectation that you will get the chance to revise them after the reviewers’ comments. Heed such advice at your own risk!]
  5. Language: Follow the conventions of academic writing, and use explanatory rather than declarative language.
  6. Referencing: It is subtly suggested that authors show familiarity with the literature that the journal has published. [You should avoid interpreting this advice as an instruction to cite excessively from your target journal. Such practices are frowned upon, or even penalised, as ‘gaming’ the impact system by which journals are ranked.]
  7. Methods description: There should be enough information in the paper to replicate the study which it reports.
  8. Evaluation: If reporting on a teaching intervention, you should demonstrate its comparative effectiveness and its replicability.
  9. Anonymity: You should shield your identity and the identity of your institution. If you cite your previous work, do make sure that you do so in ways that do not compromise your anonymity. [This will usually involve replacing your name with the word ‘Author’, when referring to older publications. However, it is now so easy to look publications up, that flagging your own in such a way may actually work against anonymity. Check with the journal’s submission guidelines.]
  10. Format: You should rigorously follow the journal’s style recommendations.

One should note that this list reports specifically on the policies of JME, rather than a universal code of practice. Journals published by Elsevier, for instance, have more lax formatting requirements; other journals may take a different stance on the citation of papers they previously published; yet other lists alert authors more prominently on the dangers of plagiarism. Still, I think that the advice in the article can function as a very handy check-list for anyone interested in academic publishing.

One last comment: getting a desk rejection can feel frustrating.  If that happens, it’s best to resist the urge to fight back, as it’s futile and childish. Understand that a desk rejection is not a failure: just like dating, it’s usually a matter of fit, rather than a reflection on the quality of the paper. Plus, a fast response means that you can start working on finding a more appropriate journal for your paper even faster. Lastly, it has been said that if you don’t get some desk rejections, you are probably not aiming high enough.


The full bibliographical listing of the paper, by the way, is: Billsberry, J. (2014). Desk-Rejects: 10 Top Tips to Avoid the Cull. Journal of Management Education, 38(1), 3-9. doi: 10.1177/1052562913517209

Featured Image Credit: Jenny Kaczorowski @ Flikr | CC BY-NC-SA

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