Why does my paper get a desk-reject time and again?

About the importance of joining the journal’s “conversation”

Many of the things that are important in submitting a paper to a particular journal become obvious if one thinks about it as a conversation. Unfortunately, as academics we often leave our common sense behind in academic writing.

Joining a conversation

Imagine that you are standing on the fringe of a group of strangers who are involved in a heated and long-running discussion. What do you do if you really want to join that discussion? Most people would listen for a quite a while to become familiar with the most important participants and get a gist of what the conversation is about. Then they might cautiously introduce themselves and offer a modest contribution that connects with an argument that was made by one of the key players. If that’s accepted they might venture a slightly more involved contribution, but always one that acknowledges other points of views.

Once they are more familiar with the conversation and its players, they might make gradually start making slightly more provocative and radical suggestions. After a while they find the group is no longer a group of strangers and they become one of the key players in the conversation themselves. This also means that they can take the conversation in a completely new direction.

Jumping right in...

In contrast, some people might ignore these conventions and just jump in with their own contribution – which might be completely unrelated to the discussion – at the first possible opportunity. In most cases the response of the group will be: Who are you? How do you dare interrupting us? What are you talking about anyway? Don’t you realise this has nothing to do with our discussion? Or… don’t you realise we have considered this a long time ago and there were conclusive arguments against this?

Oftentimes the group will “close ranks” and exclude the outsider, ignoring any further input from her. Very rarely, the group will say: "Yes, she does have a point." Usually, this only happens if some people in the group were having doubts about the way the discussion was going anyway, and are grateful for an “outsider” saying what they didn’t dare to say.

Academic journals are communities revolving around conversations

Academic journals are communities revolving around academic conversations, conversations that might be heated (well as much as one can call academic discussions heated) and long-standing. Unfortunately, many academics seem to forget common sense when submitting to a journal. A large proportion of the submissions to any journal seem to be of the following type:

Hello, you have never heard of me before, but please listen to this exciting, completely unrelated, thing I have to tell you. I haven’t bothered to listen to anything that any of you said before, but I presume you are dying to hear what I have to say anyway.

Academics are regularly submitting papers to journals dealing with a topic that has never featured in the journal before. Even worse, they make no attempt to explain why that topic might be relevant to the readers of that journal. These days, most journal editors deal with this with a desk reject, often leaving the author convinced that editors are biased against their research. They are not, they just feel that you are “barging into the conversation”.


Are you ready? Ten practical signs

Here are ten practical signs that indicate you are not quite ready to join the conversation of a particular journal:

  1. You have picked the journal simply because it is a highly ranked journal, but it is a not journal that you normally read.
  2. Your references do not include a single reference to the journal in question. Obviously, you should not just cite any paper in the journal to get into the editor’s good books. However, if you cannot find a reason to cite a single paper from the journal, maybe this means there is no “conversation” about your topic.
  3. [a variant on point 2] You think there are good reasons for not having any references to the journal you are submitting to, but you do not have any references to any other journals in the same sub-discipline either. I recently reviewed a paper submitted to Journal of International Business Studies that didn’t have any references to any articles in any International Business journal.
  4. [a variant on point 2] You can make matters worse by submitting to a journal and not having any references to any journals in the entire discipline. The paper I refer to under #3 didn’t in fact have any references to any journals in Business & Management. Of course we all believe in interdisciplinary work, but it is up to you to make the connection between the disciplines.
  5. Your formatting and referencing style does not conform to the journal style. Yes it is frustrating to have to reformat your paper every time you submit to a new journal. But most editors will reason that if you can’t be bothered to do a little reformatting, they can’t be bothered to consider your paper seriously.
  6. You use British spelling when submitting to a US journal or vice-versa.
  7. The structure of your paper is completely different to most of the papers published in the journal. For instance, you do not have a section on practical implications in a journal that prides itself on being a “bridge” journal.
  8. You submit a review paper / meta-analysis / theoretical paper / empirical paper /­ litera­ture review / experimental paper to a journal that has never published any of these before or has a mission to publish only one particular type of paper.
  9. A Publish or Perish search (use the General Citations tab) for the journal with your keywords in the “any of the words” field and the title box ticked doesn’t provide a single result.
  10. Your paper contains many claims indicating you are the "first academic ever" to study or do something. Although this might well be true in some cases, in most cases it simply signals you haven’t done a proper literature review. In fact, this means you are probably not ready to submit to any journal yet :-)

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