Today I learned the term “desk reject.” I’ve never worked as an editor for an academic journal. It seems like a thankless job, and I have nothing but admiration for those who find the time and energy to do it well. But I have gotten to a stage in my career where I am frequently called upon to do anonymous peer review articles and I’ve come to the conclusion that a lot of journal editors are shirking their responsibilities by sending papers out for peer review that should never have gotten that far.
Rejecting a paper before peer review is called a “desk reject” and different journals differ in their policies. Some journals reject most papers before they get to peer review, while others send out almost everything. In some cases, it seems, this might be a ploy to boost rejection numbers so as to improve a journals’ ranking, although it isn’t clear that it actually makes a difference (for ranking) how you reject a paper.
From chatting with journal editors on Facebook it seems the most frequent cause for a desk rejection is that an article is obviously inappropriate for that journal. Editors told me of articles sent in the wrong language, or even the wrong academic discipline. Articles that are particularly poorly written might also be subject to a desk rejection.
Yet there are good reasons not to reject too many articles this way. Some articles might be greatly improved by the peer review process and it would be a shame for the journal to loose the article. Editors might also wish to avoid being too heavy handed with their own prejudices. My complaint is that I’ve been sent papers that don’t even meet the minimum standards I would set for a graduate student term paper.
Since peer reviewing isn’t a paid job, we do it for two reasons. One is to learn about new research in our field. The other is as a form of service to our community. When an editor sends out a paper that isn’t ready for peer review, it damages the trust upon which the entire system is built. Some argue that we should “stop giving free labour to publishers that lock research away” in non-open access journals. Considering that there are very few journals in my various areas of expertise which are Open Access, I don’t see this as an option yet. Nor does it address the problem I’m discussing. I’m happy to work for free, even for a for-profit company (just like I do for Facebook and Google), but editors need to make sure that they are making it worth your while and not just using you to boost their rejection rates.
Also see Rex’s post on The five virtues of peer review(ers). And for a good primer on peer review, see this post by BoingBoing’s Maggie Koerth-Baker. Finally, take a look at the archives of the Peer Review Blog.