Many journal policies include the option of desk-rejecting a submission: To return it to the author with a negative response without sending it to referees.
What is the value of doing this?
Clearly, there is significant value for the editor/editorial staff: A desk rejection is quick, straightforward, and takes a submission out of the queue for good. No searching for referees, no waiting for their reports, no hounding the referees when the reports are late.
For the author, there is the value of quick turnaround: Because submissions which have been desk-rejected don’t go out to referees, there is generally a much shorter time between submission and final decision. This allows the author to promptly turn around and resubmit, rather than languishing in no man’s land for months only to find that his waiting was for naught and he needs to begin the process again.
Thus, it would seem that a strong case can be made for desk-rejecting those submissions which are clearly unsuitable for publication in the particular venue.
However, I think that this conclusion might be a little too simplistic, and that is because not all desk-rejections are equal. In particular, there is a large difference between “We are not going to accept your submission because it is not suited for publication in our specific venue” and “We are not going to accept your submission because we think it is not suited for publication tout court” — but this is a difference only for the author, and not really for the editor. Thus I think the question should be not “What is the value of desk rejections?” but “What is the value of desk rejections when no reason is given?” Here, the answer is not quite so straightforward. Clearly, the reasons why it is valuable for the editor given above all still hold. But there is a sharp drop in value for the author. What good is quick turn-around time if the author ultimately haves no idea why the paper was not only not accepted, but not even sent out to referees? With absolutely no guidance, how is the author to know how, or even if, he should revise before resubmitting? A submission which has been desk-rejected because it is unsuited to a particular venue — but for which there may be a suitable venue out there — will be handled by the author in a different way from one which has been desk-rejected because it is in principle not publishable, but without knowing which is the case, or if the situation is somewhere in between, a desk-rejection has little to no value for an author.
Given the benefits to the editors of having a policy which includes the option of desk-rejecting, I think its clear that editors should retain that option: We truly don’t want to antagonize our potential referee pool by sending them papers which we already know we aren’t going to publish! However, I think that in exchange for the added value that the option gives, editors should consider paying the small cost of providing a few sentence explanation. It needn’t be detailed, but the value of providing the author guidance as to why the paper was desk-rejected outweighs, in my opinion, the cost to the editor of having to add this information to her form-letter rejection, and this cost is one that editors should be willing to pay in order to obtain the value of a quick decision and processing of an unsuitable submission.