How to avoid a desk-reject in seven steps [1/8]

A desk-reject means your manuscript has been rejected by a journal without being sent out for review. Not only do you need to try your luck at another journal, you also receive preciously little advice how to improve your chances. Although some journals - especially those that have (a) separate desk-reject editor(s) - provide you with substantive feedback, most desk-rejects are accompanied by only a few lines, mainly communicating that the paper "doesn't fit" the journal. So for many academics a desk-reject causes extreme disappointment, a feeling that can easily change to desperation if this same outcome is repeated over and over again.

It is therefore no surprise that my first ever blogpost was entitled: Why does my paper get a desk-reject time and again?. "How to avoid a desk-reject" is also the theme of the yearly writing bootcamp that I am running at Cumberland Lodge as part of our concerted efforts to create a supportive and collaborative culture at Middlesex University. At the bootcamp we work with a 7-step process; I will discuss each of these seven steps in turn in upcoming posts. But first, a bit of context...

Why are desk-rejects increasing?

The number of desk-rejects has increased dramatically in the last decade or two. Whereas in the past only completely hopeless papers would suffer this fate, these days desk-reject rates for top journals can be as high as 50-80%. The key reason for this is simple arithmetic: the number of journal submissions has increased equally dramatically. In the past, even the very top journals in the field of Business & Management would only get a few hundred submissions a year of which they might publish 30 to 40. Nowadays many of these journals receive well over a 1,000 submissions a year and even though some have increased their number of issues, most still only publish around 50 articles a year, with very few publishing more than 100.

This means that without desk-rejects editors would need to find reviewers for well over a 1,000 papers, 90-95% of which would not make it through the review process. With every paper needing 2 or 3 reviewers, that means finding a few thousand reviewers every year. Moreover, most academics do not accept all review requests they receive, so it is not unusual for an editor to contact 4 or 5 academics in order to find a single reviewer. So without desk-rejects an editor might well need to contact 10,000-15,000 academics a year. And that's for a single journal! This is clearly not a feasible proposition.

Even worse, if academics do agree to review a manuscript for a journal, but then discover that it is of such poor quality that writing the desired "constructive" review means devoting one or two full days to the task rather than a few hours, they are unlikely to accept the next review request from the same journal (or any journal!). Hence editors need to be very careful with their "reviewer resources" and only send out papers for review if there is a reasonable chance they might get a revise & resubmit.

Most editors will find it quite easy to separate out the bottom 40-60% of the submissions; it is also relatively easy to pick the top 1-5%, those papers that have a very high likelihood of successfully getting through the review process. The difficulty lies in the middle group, the "not sure, might have a chance if...". Quality differences within this category might be small, but the editor needs to make a binary decision yes/no decision. My aim with this blogpost series is to increase your chances that this decision falls into the “yes, send out for review” category rather than into the "no, desk-reject" category.

Seven (not so) easy steps to avoid a desk-reject

So rather than focusing on the longer-term goal of publishing your paper, your first intermediate goal is to get your paper into the review process. Even if you don't get a revise & resubmit after the first round of reviews, this at least means that you will get some feedback from experts in your field. If you are submitting to journals that do not (yet) have a high proportion of desk-rejects, following these seven steps will make it easier to get through the review process and is likely to result in a better paper.

  1. Who do you want to talk to? Targeting journals
  2. Your title: the public face of your paper
  3. Writing your abstract: not a last-minute activity
  4. Your introduction: first impressions count!
  5. Conclusions: last impressions count too!
  6. What do you cite? Using references strategically
  7. Why do I need to write a letter to the editor?

Related blogposts