Cartoon credit: Lindsay Foyle (Sydney)

Every researcher has received rejections from journals.  I edited Tobacco Control for 17 years (7 as deputy editor, and 10 as editor). Across that time I and the other senior editors had to reject 1000s of papers. All of these were written by authors who thought their papers were important and sometimes brilliant.

There are many reasons why papers get rejected, including  many which are of an acceptable methodological and analytic standard. Here are ten of the most important:

  1. Space limits

Journal editors are given page limits for their print editions by their publishers. Editors then need to decide word limits to optimize the number of papers they can publish in each edition. If there is only room for 70 papers a year, and 700 are submitted, it’s obvious 90% will be rejected. Editors  may vary the word limits for different sorts of papers (reviews are often longer, and many submitted papers really have only one or two findings that are of any interest, and so authors are often offered brief reports or letters).

Many seem to believe that on-line only journals, not having the constraint of page limits that printed issues have, should be able to accept many more papers and not be fussed about length. But this is a misunderstanding and brings us to the next reason for rejection.

2. Budget limits

Publishers set annual budgets for journals. When I was at Tobacco Control we paid our senior editors a fee of  $US50 per allocated paper. They got this regardless of the fate of the paper. So they got the same amount if, after reading the paper (and sometimes only the abstract—see below), they rejected it without review; if it went out for review and was then rejected without offer of revision; and also if it went through review and sometimes several revisions. Finding reviewers willing to review papers is a particularly onerous task that falls to senior editors. Refusal-to-review rates run at about 1 in 3. My own personal record in soliciting reviews runs at 12 consecutive refusals. Papers from nations where English is not the first language, sometimes have many problems with expression that need many hours of editorial attention.

Senior editors generally do not attend to the numerous problems of expression, inadequate referencing and failure of authors to follow journal guidelines. Neither do they do mark up papers for publication and fix table layouts. These tasks all take lots of time and are handled either by in-house technical editors or by out-sourced editors, often in big technical editing firms overseas. On-line publishing is also often hosted by out-sourced companies, which charge by the volume of material they publish.

All this of course costs money, and so publishers insist that editors are very judicious in the volume of acceptances.

cartoon credit: Lindsay Foyle (Sydney)

3. Rapid processing

Across the 17 years I edited, there were few days when new papers, revisions or questions from authors did not arrive. If these banked up, the backlog was bad for editors’ workload, authors wanting to know the fate of a paper quickly and a journal’s reputation as a deep hole. My own worst case experience as an author myself is laid out here in its full, sorry detail.

So I encouraged all our senior editors to reject without review any papers that clearly had a snowball’s chance in hell of being accepted and which would waste everyone’s time if sent out for review. Some of the submissions that came in were unbelievable: entire theses, rants from conspiracists and crazies, papers where the authors had clearly never read the journal, and from those with near to zero familiarity with scholarly writing. If an editor leaned strongly toward reject without review, but wanted to run the reasons by others at our fortnightly editorial on-line conferences, they could bring it up there.

We used a stock email that attempted to explain our dilemma to authors: we had far, far more submissions than we could ever publish even if they were to be reviewed favourably, and so it was necessary to cull. We hoped authors would appreciate our rapid decision so they could place their work elsewhere.

One paper, in the early days of the internet, was submitted by a doctor who encouraged his patients to visit his website about smoking. He’d gone through the back-end data and written up a paper with numerous tables detailing such riveting details as the time his very modest number of patients visited his site and how many times they’d clicked through to its different pages. The assigned editor rejected it during our editorial conference. I saw the rejection come through on my email and replied to the handling editor “Congratulations! The fastest reject in the history of the journal!”. But I accidentally hit “reply all”, so my attempt at congratulating an efficient editor also went to the author who immediately replied with a white hot, incendiary blast about the arrogance of editors.

4. Impact factors

Not inciting the wrath of publishers for over-budget runs is always in the background. But there are also of course, important academic and impact considerations involved in rejection. I’ve never met a journal editor who was not intensely keen to see their journal’s impact factor rise and rise. Those who have low to homeopathic level IFs will often drone on about how unimportant these are. But those up near the top of the IF tables want everyone to know, particularly authors because many factor in IFs when submitting their most important work.

Experienced editors develop  an instinct for submissions which are likely to be highly cited by other authors after publication. One of the most common things editors on a journal say to each other in editorial conferences is “I think this paper will really attract a lot of citations”. Or the reverse. I’ll come to tell-tale signs of this below.

5. No “wow” factor

The decision to send a paper out for review rather than to reject it outright is primarily governed by judgements that a paper will attract lots of interest. Editors are chosen because they typically have a breadth of experience in the area in which a journal focuses. Their own instincts about whether a paper is important are therefore often shared by other editors in the regular editorial conferences where decisions are made  on the fate of most papers. Editors often note published papers which are being deluged with on-line clicks and being well cited. The obverse of this is that there are also categories of papers which are sleep-inducing and likely to be loved mainly by their authors.

6. Failing to “sell” your paper

I once sat next to Richard Smith, a long-time editor of the BMJ, on a train going from London to France. He had a large box-like piece of hand-luggage which was filled with paper copies of submitted papers. I watched him out of the corner of my eye as he triaged them into what I recall as three piles: instant reject, instant send out  for review, and “read further later and think about it more”.

He motored through dozens of papers in the time it took us to get to our destination. With the great majority, he read the authors’ cover letter first.  Sometimes it was the only thing he seemed to read. For others, he read the abstract as well. And with the reminder, he skimmed particular sections before deciding their fate.

We talked about this and agreed that many authors give very cursory attention to their abstracts and especially to the cover letter. The cover letter is critical to piquing the editor’s interest  and telling the story about why the paper is important, how it advances understanding of something that passes the “so what?” litmus test and ultimately of whether a paper might hold promise of attracting a lot of scholarly and hopefully public interest too.

Similarly, abstracts are often dashed off at the end of a paper’s construction by fatigued authors wanting to just get it out to a journal. Amid a plethora of findings, sometimes the most important or interesting findings are left out of an abstract, because authors have failed to view their paper as editors might view it, killing a paper’s interest.

My own way of approaching this was to rehearse how I would try to briefly describe a paper of mine when pitching it to a specialized health or medical journalist writing for a newspaper. If it was a struggle, I’d often come down to earth about where to pitch the paper.

7. International or local interest?

With international journals (as opposed to those with clear national foci), editors are keen to publish papers that will interest global readers. In the tobacco control research space. A competent study of smoking prevalence among medical students in a single university in Calathumpia will be of far less interest than one that compares the same phenomenon in a large number of countries using a standard protocol. However, if a local prevalence study is contextualized against particular policies or practices that allow consideration of what might be explaining changing prevalence, that might well interest international readers.

8. Tell-tale signs of slap-dash preparation

A paper which has been rejected, perhaps often, by other journals often has signs that do not require a degree in forensic investigation to discern. Wrong referencing styles, not using the required headings or abstract style, dated data and a focus on water-under-the-bridge events, policies etc are all often give-aways. Under the weight of abundant choices, editors can take the attitude that they will give about the same time to such pass-the-parcel submissions as the authors have given to a journal’s requirements.

9. Come clean: attach previous reviews and changes

Many papers are rejected after review. Rejection here is often not because of irreparable problems, but simply because it’s been decided that your paper does not rank highly enough against others lined up in the “potential” marshalling yard.  If yours has been rejected for other than fatal flaws, do not simply submit the same, unrevised paper to the next journal down the food-chain. Instead, address those changes that the previous journal’s reviewers suggested, and send the next journal a covering letter explaining that you had it reviewed by another journal, didn’t make the cut and include the reviews as well as a point-by-point explanation of how you addressed criticisms in your revision, now being submitted to the new journal.

I used to very much appreciate that when it happened and sometimes just used one new reviewer to assess the adequacy of the revision. I have also (quite a few times) received a paper I reviewed for one journal, from another. It has just knocked on the next door still all disheveled, looking for a bed. When authors have made no attempt to make any changes, I always advise the editor of the second journal of this and attach my old review.

10. Nominate likely reviewers

Many journals invite authors to suggest possible suitable reviewers (provided that these people have no competing interests with the authors). A surprising number of authors fail to nominate anyone.  Those who do are off to a good start with editors who have decided a paper is good enough to review. It saves them time, and in my experience is usually more likely to result in a reviewer agreeing to review as the authors may know of their interest in the focus of the paper. My usual practice was to pick 1 or 2 of the 3 required reviewers from those suggested by the authors.