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Logo for Dr Anna Clemens PhD who teaches scientific writing courses for researchers

5 Most Common Reasons Why Your Paper Was Desk-Rejected

5 Most Common Reasons Why Your Paper Was Desk-Rejected

Getting a paper rejected isn’t unusual. However, if your paper was rejected without review, it may not be obvious to you as the author what the reasons were for the desk-rejection by the journal. In order for you to know what your next steps are to get that paper published somewhere else, this article helps you analyse why your paper got desk-rejected.

The importance of Understanding the reasons for desk rejection by a journal

The dreaded email: “I regret to inform you that it will not be possible to consider your manuscript for publication.” Manuscript rejection is part of every academic’s life. Still, a journal desk rejection can sting. At the very least, it is annoying because it means extra work for you to prepare your paper for submission to a different journal.

This leads us to the question: What should you do after your paper was rejected without peer review? You have different options: You could submit your paper to another journal as is. Or you could revise it before targeting a different journal. You could also write an appeal letter to the journal editor. Or you may want to return to your lab, office or the field and collect more data.

To decide on a publishing strategy after desk rejection, it’s important to understand the reasons behind the manuscript rejection. When you get a peer review report, it’s usually easy to extract the criticism on your scientific paper and plan your next steps accordingly. However, when your paper was rejected without review, it can be more difficult to understand why as the letter you receive from the journal editor may be in form of a standard reply not containing tailored feedback.

To help you strategically plan a re-submission strategy, this blog post summarises the five most common reasons for desk-rejection by a journal that help you to self-analyse your manuscript.

Desk-rejected – What to do first

First of all: Take a deep breath! Before we get to the likely reasons behind a rejected paper, let me say this: It’s okay to be upset about it – even if you are a seasoned scientific author. It’s okay to feel all the emotions. But please don’t let your emotions guide your next steps.

Never, ever reply to a journal editor while you are in a state of frustration, anger, or disappointment. Make it a habit to take a break from the manuscript after reading the editor’s note. It doesn’t matter whether you need an hour or a week.

Once you’re ready to work on your rejected paper, have a look at the most common reasons for journal desk rejection.

MOST Common reasons for a rejected paper

Let me start by giving you an overview of the five most common reasons for a desk-rejected paper:

  1. Your study’s findings are not significant or novel enough
  2. Your study is too narrow
  3. Your data isn’t presented well enough
  4. You used unsuitable (or outdated) methods
  5. Your paper is badly written

Let me go over each reason in detail.

Reason 1: Your study’s findings are not significant or novel enough

Often journal editors desk-reject papers because they don’t deem the manuscript a good fit for their journal. For example, if you submitted your paper to a journal that has a diverse audience in terms of their expertise, the editor may determine that your study isn’t of interest to a large enough portion of that readership.

It’s also possible that the journal editor isn’t convinced that your results are significant enough. This means that they may not expect them to have potentially far-reaching implications for your field of research. For journals with high journal impact factors it is crucial that the research is truly novel and no aspect of your findings has been published before.

I recommend assessing your manuscript from this perspective first: Check what the aims, scope and readership of your target journal are. You can usually find this information on the journal’s website in the “Author Guidelines” or “About this Journal” sections. Also, try comparing your manuscript with papers that have been recently published in the journal.

Do you think that the significance of your paper matches the journal’s requirements? If you think it does, then continue your analysis with the next possible reason for journal desk rejection below.

Free online training for academics for scienftic writing

Reason 2: Your study is too narrow

Maybe the reason for the rejection wasn’t the study’s significance but that it wasn’t comprehensive enough. High-impact journals in particular seek to publish studies that are based on rather large data sets supporting your conclusions.

Again, it’s worth comparing the size of your study to those previously published in the journal. Has your study investigated a similar number of different study parameters? Have you used complementary methods, and/or already investigated a next obvious step, e.g., testing a proof of concept study in real conditions, upscaling a reaction or similar?

If you think the conclusions of your scientific paper are well substantiated by the data you present, read on.

Reason 3: Your data isn’t presented well enough

Editors of journals with a broad readership generally cover a rather large proportion of a research area, so they aren’t likely to be experts in your study topic. Therefore, they probably don’t read the text of your Results section and instead look at your figures and tables to assess the quality of your research.

If the journal editor isn’t able to understand your figures and tables within a rather short amount of time and with little effort, they are likely to reject your paper. Having your data presented well visually is important to overcome the first hurdle in the publication process and to not get your paper rejected without review.

Take a critical look at your figures (and figure captions!) or show them to a colleague unfamiliar with your study and ask them to summarise in a sentence what the main take-away from each figure is. If you conclude that your figures represent your findings well, let’s have a look at the next possible reason for the manuscript rejection.

Reason 4: You used unsuitable (our outdated) methods

Usually, it is more the responsibility of peer reviewers rather than journal editors to analyse whether your findings rely on soundly conducted research. But even though the journal editor likely isn’t an expert in your study topic, you can still expect that they have a good understanding of what is going on in your field generally. So, if they notice that you used an outdated method or didn’t use a technique well, they will likely reject your paper immediately.

If you are unsure, consult with a trusted colleague in your field. Also, uploading your manuscript as a preprint and inviting discussion within your scientific community could help you understand whether your methodology is adequate.

It’s not your methods either? Okay, then it is very likely that your paper was desk-rejected because of reason 5 below.  

Reason 5: Your paper is badly written

Perhaps your study ticked all the boxes for publication in a top-tier journal, but it still got rejected. Most likely, this is because you didn’t communicate well enough what your findings are, and why they are important, robust and a good fit for the journal.

The easiest way to do this is by telling a story in your paper. Well, it’s easy if you know how to tell a story in a scientific paper. Inside our academic writing program, we help researchers craft a coherent and compelling narrative based on their findings. (We’d love to have you as a member!)

Apart from telling a story, your paper should be:

  • concise (using as few words as possible to communicate what you want to say), and
  • clear (explaining what you mean in the least ambiguous way in every word, sentence and paragraph written).

A common mistake researchers make when writing scientific papers is that they try too hard to convince their readers that they are smart and know their field well. This can make a paper lengthy and confusing, which has the exact opposite effect of what was intended.

You can expect that a journal editor will look at your whole paper but pay somewhat less attention to the text of your Results section (that one will peer reviewers will focus on). Journal editors are usually especially interested in your abstract, cover letter, references and if present, your discussion and/or conclusions section(s). Make sure you nail these!

Re-read these parts of your scientific paper with the scope of your target journal in mind (see reason #1): Did you make the significance of your research clear? Did you avoid general statements and buzzwords when describing the potential impact of your study? Did you specify who is likely to benefit or be interested in your findings? Did you reference recent studies in your field that were published in journals with a similar journal impact factor?

If you were able to answer these questions along with a ‘yes’, you could consider writing a letter to the journal editor appealing their decision to desk-reject your paper.

SELF-Assess your rejected paper based on the five most common reasons for journal desk rejection

We just went through the five most common reasons for desk rejection by a journal. To summarise, you can use these to self-assess your rejected paper step by step:

  • Step 1: Does the significance of your paper match the journal’s requirements and readership?
  • Step 2: Did you present a large enough data set that substantiates your conclusions?
  • Step 3: Did you present your data in a way that is clear and quickly understood?
  • Step 4: Did you use suitable and state-of-the-art methodology?
  • Step 5: Did you communicate your findings and their significance cleary, concisely and compellingly?

It is not uncommon that you are too familiar with your manuscript to be able to critically assess your desk-rejected paper. I highly recommend getting an outside opinion from a trusted mentor, colleague or coach.

If you can answer all questions with a ‘yes’, you could consider writing a letter to the journal editor appealing their decision to desk-reject your paper.

If you answered one or more questions with a ‘no’, one or all of those points were likely the reason for why your paper was desk-rejected. Based on your assessment, you can strategically decide which journal to target for your next submission, whether to collect more data, change your methodology or to revise your figures, tables and/or text. We’re happy to coach you to find the most suitable publishing strategy for your rejected paper inside our scientific writing course, the Researchers’ Writing Academy. We are happy to provide tailored feedback on your rejected paper, so you know exactly where you need to focus your time and attention for the next submission.

If you are curious what the Researchers’ Writing Academy is about, I recommend watching our free taster training. In this 1-hour scientific writing class, I will introduce you to my template to get papers published in high-impact journals without lacking structure in the writing process. Simply click the orange button below!

Graphic inviting scientist to register for our free interactive writing training

Share article

5 Most Common Reasons Why Your Paper Was Desk-Rejected

Getting a paper rejected isn’t unusual. However, if your paper was rejected without review, it may not be obvious to you as the author what the reasons were for the desk-rejection by the journal. In order for you to know what your next steps are to get that paper published somewhere else, this article helps you analyse why your paper got desk-rejected.

The importance of Understanding the reasons for desk rejection by a journal

The dreaded email: “I regret to inform you that it will not be possible to consider your manuscript for publication.” Manuscript rejection is part of every academic’s life. Still, a journal desk rejection can sting. At the very least, it is annoying because it means extra work for you to prepare your paper for submission to a different journal.

This leads us to the question: What should you do after your paper was rejected without peer review? You have different options: You could submit your paper to another journal as is. Or you could revise it before targeting a different journal. You could also write an appeal letter to the journal editor. Or you may want to return to your lab, office or the field and collect more data.

To decide on a publishing strategy after desk rejection, it’s important to understand the reasons behind the manuscript rejection. When you get a peer review report, it’s usually easy to extract the criticism on your scientific paper and plan your next steps accordingly. However, when your paper was rejected without review, it can be more difficult to understand why as the letter you receive from the journal editor may be in form of a standard reply not containing tailored feedback.

To help you strategically plan a re-submission strategy, this blog post summarises the five most common reasons for desk-rejection by a journal that help you to self-analyse your manuscript.

Desk-rejected – What to do first

First of all: Take a deep breath! Before we get to the likely reasons behind a rejected paper, let me say this: It’s okay to be upset about it – even if you are a seasoned scientific author. It’s okay to feel all the emotions. But please don’t let your emotions guide your next steps.

Never, ever reply to a journal editor while you are in a state of frustration, anger, or disappointment. Make it a habit to take a break from the manuscript after reading the editor’s note. It doesn’t matter whether you need an hour or a week.

Once you’re ready to work on your rejected paper, have a look at the most common reasons for journal desk rejection.

MOST Common reasons for a rejected paper

Let me start by giving you an overview of the five most common reasons for a desk-rejected paper:

  1. Your study’s findings are not significant or novel enough
  2. Your study is too narrow
  3. Your data isn’t presented well enough
  4. You used unsuitable (or outdated) methods
  5. Your paper is badly written

Let me go over each reason in detail.

Reason 1: Your study’s findings are not significant or novel enough

Often journal editors desk-reject papers because they don’t deem the manuscript a good fit for their journal. For example, if you submitted your paper to a journal that has a diverse audience in terms of their expertise, the editor may determine that your study isn’t of interest to a large enough portion of that readership.

It’s also possible that the journal editor isn’t convinced that your results are significant enough. This means that they may not expect them to have potentially far-reaching implications for your field of research. For journals with high journal impact factors it is crucial that the research is truly novel and no aspect of your findings has been published before.

I recommend assessing your manuscript from this perspective first: Check what the aims, scope and readership of your target journal are. You can usually find this information on the journal’s website in the “Author Guidelines” or “About this Journal” sections. Also, try comparing your manuscript with papers that have been recently published in the journal.

Do you think that the significance of your paper matches the journal’s requirements? If you think it does, then continue your analysis with the next possible reason for journal desk rejection below.

Free online training for academics for scienftic writing

Reason 2: Your study is too narrow

Maybe the reason for the rejection wasn’t the study’s significance but that it wasn’t comprehensive enough. High-impact journals in particular seek to publish studies that are based on rather large data sets supporting your conclusions.

Again, it’s worth comparing the size of your study to those previously published in the journal. Has your study investigated a similar number of different study parameters? Have you used complementary methods, and/or already investigated a next obvious step, e.g., testing a proof of concept study in real conditions, upscaling a reaction or similar?

If you think the conclusions of your scientific paper are well substantiated by the data you present, read on.

Reason 3: Your data isn’t presented well enough

Editors of journals with a broad readership generally cover a rather large proportion of a research area, so they aren’t likely to be experts in your study topic. Therefore, they probably don’t read the text of your Results section and instead look at your figures and tables to assess the quality of your research.

If the journal editor isn’t able to understand your figures and tables within a rather short amount of time and with little effort, they are likely to reject your paper. Having your data presented well visually is important to overcome the first hurdle in the publication process and to not get your paper rejected without review.

Take a critical look at your figures (and figure captions!) or show them to a colleague unfamiliar with your study and ask them to summarise in a sentence what the main take-away from each figure is. If you conclude that your figures represent your findings well, let’s have a look at the next possible reason for the manuscript rejection.

Reason 4: You used unsuitable (our outdated) methods

Usually, it is more the responsibility of peer reviewers rather than journal editors to analyse whether your findings rely on soundly conducted research. But even though the journal editor likely isn’t an expert in your study topic, you can still expect that they have a good understanding of what is going on in your field generally. So, if they notice that you used an outdated method or didn’t use a technique well, they will likely reject your paper immediately.

If you are unsure, consult with a trusted colleague in your field. Also, uploading your manuscript as a preprint and inviting discussion within your scientific community could help you understand whether your methodology is adequate.

It’s not your methods either? Okay, then it is very likely that your paper was desk-rejected because of reason 5 below.  

Reason 5: Your paper is badly written

Perhaps your study ticked all the boxes for publication in a top-tier journal, but it still got rejected. Most likely, this is because you didn’t communicate well enough what your findings are, and why they are important, robust and a good fit for the journal.

The easiest way to do this is by telling a story in your paper. Well, it’s easy if you know how to tell a story in a scientific paper. Inside our academic writing program, we help researchers craft a coherent and compelling narrative based on their findings. (We’d love to have you as a member!)

Apart from telling a story, your paper should be:

  • concise (using as few words as possible to communicate what you want to say), and
  • clear (explaining what you mean in the least ambiguous way in every word, sentence and paragraph written).

A common mistake researchers make when writing scientific papers is that they try too hard to convince their readers that they are smart and know their field well. This can make a paper lengthy and confusing, which has the exact opposite effect of what was intended.

You can expect that a journal editor will look at your whole paper but pay somewhat less attention to the text of your Results section (that one will peer reviewers will focus on). Journal editors are usually especially interested in your abstract, cover letter, references and if present, your discussion and/or conclusions section(s). Make sure you nail these!

Re-read these parts of your scientific paper with the scope of your target journal in mind (see reason #1): Did you make the significance of your research clear? Did you avoid general statements and buzzwords when describing the potential impact of your study? Did you specify who is likely to benefit or be interested in your findings? Did you reference recent studies in your field that were published in journals with a similar journal impact factor?

If you were able to answer these questions along with a ‘yes’, you could consider writing a letter to the journal editor appealing their decision to desk-reject your paper.

SELF-Assess your rejected paper based on the five most common reasons for journal desk rejection

We just went through the five most common reasons for desk rejection by a journal. To summarise, you can use these to self-assess your rejected paper step by step:

  • Step 1: Does the significance of your paper match the journal’s requirements and readership?
  • Step 2: Did you present a large enough data set that substantiates your conclusions?
  • Step 3: Did you present your data in a way that is clear and quickly understood?
  • Step 4: Did you use suitable and state-of-the-art methodology?
  • Step 5: Did you communicate your findings and their significance cleary, concisely and compellingly?

It is not uncommon that you are too familiar with your manuscript to be able to critically assess your desk-rejected paper. I highly recommend getting an outside opinion from a trusted mentor, colleague or coach.

If you can answer all questions with a ‘yes’, you could consider writing a letter to the journal editor appealing their decision to desk-reject your paper.

If you answered one or more questions with a ‘no’, one or all of those points were likely the reason for why your paper was desk-rejected. Based on your assessment, you can strategically decide which journal to target for your next submission, whether to collect more data, change your methodology or to revise your figures, tables and/or text. We’re happy to coach you to find the most suitable publishing strategy for your rejected paper inside our scientific writing course, the Researchers’ Writing Academy. We are happy to provide tailored feedback on your rejected paper, so you know exactly where you need to focus your time and attention for the next submission.

If you are curious what the Researchers’ Writing Academy is about, I recommend watching our free taster training. In this 1-hour scientific writing class, I will introduce you to my template to get papers published in high-impact journals without lacking structure in the writing process. Simply click the orange button below!

Graphic inviting scientist to register for our free interactive writing training

Share article

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