Desk Reject

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.

3 thoughts on “Desk Reject

  1. Am I wrong to detect a stunned silence in the zero response to this post? No question about it, value judgments—this is good, improvable or goes straight into the trash bin—are an inescapable part of life. One fears, however, that the cultural climate created by grade inflation and otherwise laudable tenderhearted feelings toward those for whom rejection is painful have led us to a point where the brutal shifting of the wheat from the chaff is a task from which too many of us shudder and turn away.

    I recall very clearly what Alice Buzzarte, then doyen of English language copywriters in Japan, said to me shortly after I was hired to work in an advertising agency in Japan: “To succeed in this business you need a thick skin. At least three out of four of your brilliant ideas are going straight into the trash can.” If anything, Alice was understating the case. In the agency’s training program for new employees—from which I was spared but shouldn’t have been—a standard approach to training the novice copywriter was an exercise called hitoban hyakuhan (one night, one hundred proposals).

    Nothing I have experienced since, in business, politics and academic competition, has contradicted what Alice was saying and its relevance far beyond the advertising industry per se. Blessed are the editors with the grit to say, “No. This won’t do at all.” Saintly are those who can say it in a way that encourages improvement instead of despair. But it has to be said.

  2. This is also a problem for book manuscripts. I’ve reviewed two recently that should never have been sent out. I made a point to let the editors know that they had done the authors a great disservice by sending them out before they were ready for primetime. My read is that editors are overworked and simply do not have the time to read everything carefully enough to make the decision in marginal cases. This is not an excuse, just an acknowledgement of broader systemic problems. I’d be interested to hear from the editors out there.

    Of course, one reason to err on the side of caution is that desk rejects can prevent authors from getting helpful advice from fellow scholars in their field.

    I think we also do peer review to help shape the direction of a field. I don’t think any of us are afraid of making value judgements when we do this vital work. Book reviews, though, that’s another story…

  3. I have done several peer reviews in the last few months. Some of the ready for prime time, and some of them not. I agree with John that a major goal of peer review should be to be as he writes above, “saintly” by rejecting in a fashion that encourages “improvement instead of despair.”

    Having said that, I personally have been subject to peer reviewers who were far from saintly–sometimes they were nasty, mean, and often irrelevant. When I get a review like that, I tend to assume that the reviewer was badly hung over after being told by their spouse the previous evening that they wanted a divorce. Or perhaps the hangover came after they were dumped by their mistress. As the victim of such a peer review, my job is to distill out any of the (few) constructive comments, and find another journal to re-submit to.

    In the short- and long-run, this strategy has often worked. One of my papers was rejected by five peer review before being accepted by a “good” journal. Most of my papers have been rejected at least once. A couple of times I’ve moved a rejected paper over to a non-peer reviewed venue.

    I’ve had the occasional “desk rejection” too. Also rejections from a couple of editorial “saints.” But it is the really nasty ones that stick in the craw–


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