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Technical Issues in Publishing

How to Avoid Desk Rejection in Academic Publishing


Dr. Avriel Licciardi, Research Communications Strategist

April 2022

Desk rejection of a submitted article can be a frustrating and demotivating process, especially if it is a repeated occurrence, or if you had high expectations for your manuscript. Desk rejection is, unfortunately, quite common, and thus, identifying and avoiding common problems that can lead to desk rejection will maximize your chances for publication in your target journal. Here, we offer insights to better prepare your manuscript to help streamline your publication journey.

What is Desk Rejection?

A desk rejection, or desk-reject, means your manuscript has been rejected by an academic journal without being sent out for peer review. While variable, most desk rejections are accompanied by little feedback, instead mainly communicating that the paper “doesn’t fit” the journal. Despite causing considerable disappointment for authors, desk rejection is common in academic publishing.

Five Common Reasons for Desk Rejection (and Solutions)

Although reasons for desk rejection are variable, below are five common reasons for rejection prior to peer review, as well as suggestions for how to address these issues:

1. Poor manuscript preparation. First impressions are important, and how well you prepare your manuscript for submission directly affects whether your manuscript will be sent to peer reviewers. If you submit a manuscript that is incomplete; poorly organized; missing files, figures or tables; or does not adhere to the journal’s guidelines, the chances are high for a desk-reject decision—and it is unlikely you can resubmit. As such, taking the time to prepare a well-organized, mistake-free manuscript that adheres to the journal’s expectations is a must.

- Prepare, organize, and structure your manuscript according to the journal’s Author Guidelines. If the journal provides a template for submission formatting, use it.
- Ensure your references are in order and consistent. Check that all citations in the manuscript are included in the reference list (and vice versa) and that you have employed the journal-approved referencing style.
- Double-check the basics. Does the journal accept your article type and/or study design? Is your paper an acceptable length? Is there a limit on figures/tables? Do you have all necessary elements of the manuscript complete (highlights, graphical abstract, cover letter)?
- Do not submit unless you have addressed the necessary ethical standards regarding your research. Prepare this information in advance and include it with your submission

2. Mismatch with journal’s aims and scope. This is a top reason for a desk-reject decision but one of the most difficult to understand as an author. A journal editor must always consider the journal’s readership, and if your manuscript is not suitable, irrelevant or unlikely to be of interest to the readers, you will likely receive a desk rejection for being “outside the scope” of the journal. As such, it is crucial to revise your manuscript to align with the target journal’s aim and scope, thereby reducing chances for desk rejection.

- Choose the right journal for your submission. If possible, select your target journal before writing your manuscript. This way, you can ensure your manuscript aligns with your target journal during the writing process.
- If you have already written your manuscript, read the aims and scope of the target journal carefully and comprehensively, and revise your text if needed.
- Review papers published in recent issues of the target journal. Are they similar? Different? Do you cite papers from this journal in your own manuscript?
- Consider the audience of the journal and tailor your manuscript accordingly. State why your results are interesting to the journal’s readership in your cover letter, and ensure your results are generalizable and applicable to the target audience.

3. Lack of significance, novelty and/or impact. Journals desire manuscript submissions that address important issues and research questions, as well as offer new insights and advance theories and understanding. You may therefore receive a desk rejection if your work does not “push the boundary”, or if the contributions of your manuscript are unclear to the reader. For example, manuscripts that simply apply a well-established theory or method in a new context—but offer no new intellectual insights—are unlikely to be sent out for peer review. Communicating the novelty and significance of your work is absolutely essential for publication.

- Ensure the novelty and significance of your research is clearly communicated in the cover letter. If the journal does not require a cover letter, we recommend providing one, as it offers another opportunity to illustrate the impact of your science.
- Be clear and direct in your manuscript. The abstract, introduction and conclusion provide multiple opportunities to highlight the gap in knowledge that your research addresses.

4. Flaws in research methodology or study design. Unfortunately, a manuscript that presents a compelling case may still be desk rejected if the research was conducted inadequately or has discernable flaws. A lack of research questions or objectives, bias in the research methods, skewed or small sample sizes, and a variety of other issues can make research unsuitable for publication. There is no study with a perfect methodology, but any major flaws, faults or concerns should be anticipated and resolved during the research phase (i.e., prior to manuscript drafting and submission).

- Acknowledge all study limitations. Stating your methodological limitations illustrates a comprehensive command of your research and allows for mention of future work.
- Present a thorough and relevant literature review. The literature foundation of a manuscript should be clear and comprehensive, to illustrate the appropriateness and rigor of your selected methods and study design.
- Avoid incorrect use of statistical analysis and explain all assumptions clearly.

5. Language and writing issues. Poor writing can seriously affect the readability and clarity of a manuscript. Importantly, if the scientific content of a manuscript cannot be understood due to language issues, then the manuscript will be rejected at the initial assessment stage, as the peer reviewers will not be able to assess the science rigorously. Most journals also employ a plagiarism check during the initial screening phase, which can lead to desk rejection if failed.

- Proofread your manuscript or use a professional proofreading service to correct all language and grammatical errors. Upon submission, your manuscript should be error-free.
- Reduce potential plagiarism or self-plagiarism as much as possible. Always rephrase during the writing process or seek a professional plagiarism check before submission.
- Understand that writing quality is not only a “language issue”. Structure, logic, and coherence collectively contribute to the quality standard of the manuscript. Mirroring your manuscript organization to papers published in your target journal is recommended.

Understand that a manuscript’s progression to the peer review process cannot be assumed; instead, it must be earned. Achieving this requires diligence in the preparation of your manuscript, which will aid in increasing chances of your manuscript progressing to formal peer review.

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