The Value and Cost of Desk Rejections

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.


5 thoughts on “The Value and Cost of Desk Rejections

  1. Gualtiero Piccinini

    I couldn’t agree more. A quick rejection without comments is better than a slow rejection without comments, but it’s still a waste of the author’s time. Editors should always provide a reason for their rejection.

  2. jdjacobs

    I’ll be the devil’s advocate here. But first, I agree that, if there is something helpful that can be said briefly, we ought to say it. The sorts of cases where the paper does not fit the aims or scope of the journal would be straightforward.

    Nevertheless, there are papers for which I know they are not publishable but about which it would be quite difficult to describe, quickly and in just a few sentences, why I believe they are not publishable in a way that would be helpful to the author. Consider, for example, papers that appear make no substantive contribution to the literature, or, even more to the point, that seem to display deep confusion about the philosophical issues at stake. What should the editor say to the author in those cases? I’m skeptical that there’s anything that could be said that would be helpful to the author.

    1. Sara L. Uckelman

      I’m of a different opinion. I think that the descriptions you’ve given in your post already fulfil the criteria I was suggesting: “This paper does not appear to make a substantive contribution to the literature” or “This paper appears to have substantial confusion about philosophical issue X” fit the bill. Such comments will be helpful to the author (even if they are not the type of comment any author would ever enjoy hearing!) because they indicate that re-writing the paper into a publishable form may be a much larger undertaking than they might have thought. It’s important to separate out the statement of the problems of the paper (which are the reasons for rejection) from statements of possible ways to fix those problems. Sometimes, the latter are impossible to give, given the former. But that doesn’t mean that the former aren’t still useful to the author. In such cases, I think the editor doesn’t do anyone a favor by not putting the situation plainly to the author.

  3. gualtiero piccinini

    Good question. Why not say: “I regret to say that your paper does not appear to make a sufficiently substantive contribution to the literature,” or “I regret to say that your writing does not appear to be sufficiently clear to warrant publication.” If I were the author, I would find those comments very helpful.


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