You’ve done your research, written your manuscript (had it edited, right??), and submitted it to your target journal. Almost immediately, you get a reply of “no.”
You’ve been desk rejected. You could have avoided that. Preventing some aspects of desk rejection are quite easy, and they often only happen because the authors were cutting corners in a hurry to submit.
Once you make it to peer review, you have a 40% chance at publication. Those are pretty good odds. So why not put in a bit more effort to get there?
A desk rejection means you didn’t make it to peer review, did not get past the first screening. So it’s back to go for you and your team. It stinks, and you’re not alone; Elsevier reports its editors reject 30%–50% of submitted manuscripts.
A manuscript that meets the publisher’s requirements will be accepted for review and then, we hope, for publication.
If you’re desk rejected, here’s what you probably did wrong. Now you won’t have to repeat these same mistakes. Prepare for them in advance and greatly increase your chances of being accepted and preventing desk rejection.
Edit or at least proofread your English
These days, about 70% of journal submissions are from non-native speakers of English. And when many of these manuscript authors submit their work in their own English, many get desk-rejected at this very first stage. It’s unfortunate when you’ve studied so hard, but it’s also easily avoidable.
Publication-quality English starts with the basics: spelling, grammar, word choice, and just “sounding right.” Even if you’re an exceptional speaker and writer, and you’ve studied for years, If you’re not a native speaker of English, it’s a big challenge to write at a native level acceptable to English-language journals.
Many authors get a quick desk rejection because after a couple of sentences, it’s clear they’re not native speakers. Editors and reviewers aren’t there to correct your English (though some will, or at least give pointers on certain parts). That’s your duty. This may be the easiest thing to fix to prevent desk rejection of your manuscript.
The easiest solution is to get an edit, or at least a proofread, from a true native English-speaking editor or someone with complete fluency.
“Native English” and “English as an official language” are not always the same
Even if you’re from a country where English is an official language, it doesn’t necessarily guarantee you can write at a native level. That’s because you’re often speaking a mix of languages in your daily life, and you may be speaking another language at home.
Yes, people from “non-native” English-speaking countries can attain fluency. Usually, it requires them to have spent considerable time abroad in a country where English is the undisputedly dominant language (such as the United Kingdom, United States, or Australia) or have studied in an immersive English environment such as an international school.
Your journal submission should have correct plurals, spellings, and tenses. It should have correct commas, periods, and question marks, where they’re required. Grammar software also only goes so far.
Use correct words and eliminate typos. Aim for no more than one idea and 15–25 words in a sentence. Use simple language to highlight your points.
It may not be “fair” that journals require native-level English, but it does ensure clear scientific communication and a shared set of rules. Services like AJE editing can level the playing field for you. You have a right to be proud of your achievements in English, but you also need to be honest about your limits.
Use active tense rather than passive tense
Write in the present tense (e.g., “We found all cats are weird.”) and not the passive (e.g., “All cats were found to be weird.”), unless the journal specifies otherwise. Take it from Nature: “sentences written in the passive voice are often less interesting or more difficult to read than those written in the active voice.”
Have all co-authors check it and sign off on it
Send the manuscript to all the coauthors for a final read and corrections. Colleagues who are subject-matter experts are the best proofreaders of the technical sections.
Journals of course want to publish great science, but it has to be understandable by readers. This is one of the easiest problems to fix. Though many think they can cut corners here.
Make sure the manuscript has a relevant title
This is often the first bit of your manuscript a journal editor will see. Your title should reflect the areas and types of study your target journal publishes. If it doesn’t, you might be desk-rejected right there.
If possible, include words from the scope of the journal in the manuscript title. This makes it immediately easier for the editor to see if it’s something with potential for the journal.
Short, descriptive titles are better.
Your title should give insight into the problem and methodology. Some journals may also insist the study design is included in the title, so be sure to check the guidelines thoroughly, and have your editor double-check.
Be sure the abstract is concise but contains the essential information
Your abstract should give a high-level (as in wide overview, not complex) and compelling summary of the article. Your problem statement should be mentioned in brief in the abstract.
Be sure the abstract sufficiently tells how your work contains novel information. Even if your findings are only minor increments, or even if you’re reporting a failure to make findings, that’s still novel.
Put the abstract in the right structure
Make sure the abstract is structured (with subheadings) or unstructured (no subheadings), and within the journal’s designated word limit. And while brevity is good, don’t hugely undershoot.
If the word limit is 250, try for at least 175 or so words. Ideally, you should be struggling to meet the limit, because there’s so much you want to say. A few journals may also have no abstract or use a “summary” format instead.
Not following the abstract guidelines is a quick ticket to desk rejection. You can prevent this simply by reading the rules or having a native-speaking editor check for you.
Do a graphical abstract, if these are allowed, and if you can
And check for graphical abstracts, which can add a modern and visual element that appeals to shorter attention spans and, of course, more visually oriented people. There is a certain skill involved in these, so read up on them and look at other examples from your field of study.
Make sure your study should contain a novel or innovative aspect
You can sell the novelty upfront in the cover letter and abstract. Do this by setting your work in the present context, amid current issues. Make it easy for editors to see you’re presenting something new. They of course want to publish new things in their journals. Even incremental research or research that fails to produce significant results is “new” in that it clarifies previous work.
If it’s not novel, in some way, why would anyone want to read or cite it?
No references in the abstract
Note, however, that abstracts are not where you should be citing references. But in the manuscript’s intro and body, you can quickly get into that if your work builds on a recently attractive topic.
Use recent citations as much as possible
Editors often check whether authors are citing recent work. This shows you’re up-to-date on your area of study, and your work is pushing new boundaries.
Reference abundantly whenever there is a chance of appearing to represent others’ ideas as your own. This is ethical and required, but it also helps the editor see your modernity.
Content and structure should fit the journal’s scope and guidelines
The standard structure is Abstract, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion (and often Conclusions) – the classic IMRaD style. Most journals will follow this, though they may allow for other subsections, and they may have required additional sections, such as an ethics statement, funding statement, and acknowledgments.
Give the journal what it asks for
Check your target journal’s guidelines thoroughly. Have your coauthors and editor (if you’re wisely using one) double-check to be sure you didn’t miss anything. Journal guidelines can be inconsistent and tricky. Some are awkwardly worded and contradict themselves. Make sure your formatting is exactly as the journal requires, no matter how picky it may seem.
It’s perfectly fine to contact the journal directly to confirm anything you’re not sure of.
Prove you’re worthy of the journal
Within the body of the article, you should include a literature review, methodology, analysis of results, and a discussion. Your content should remain within the scope of the publication, or if it’s a bit off, it must thoroughly justify it through the cover letter and through making connections to the scope.
Make life easier for the journal editors
Peer reviewers look at the sequence with which information is presented. If it’s unconventional and/or doesn’t follow what the journal guidelines require, you could be desk rejected at that point.
The journal has no time to copy edit you, never mind help you with fundamental scientific writing. Peer review takes time and effort, and it should be focused on verifying the science.
Also, if they’re not native English speakers, then unclear language may confuse them even more, or cause them to miss important points.
Hypotheses must be clear; you must have a good research motive, the conclusion must make sense
This is the real heart of your study. If you’re at the point of submitting for publication, and you’re rejected here, you may have no choice but to redo your research.
The hypothesis must be clear and justified. Do past studies give enough evidence that this is something that can be pursued. Do your hypotheses even make sense? (It may just be a language issue, if you’re lucky.) Do the research and data properly address these hypotheses?
And then, did you interpret it reasonably and justifiably?
These can all be reasons for desk rejection.
The study should use acceptable methodology and have a motive
Your methodology should be innovative and relevant, and should be accepted in your scientific community.
Prove that you’re up-to-date
Your article should explain your approach and the type of instruments or software used. Give suppliers and version numbers. The use of outdated and proven-inferior methodology is a strong indicator that your work isn’t novel or isn’t as novel as it could be.
Be contemporary in the social sciences, too
This may be more of a concern in cutting-edge technologies and hard sciences, but social scientists should still be up on the more recent theories and methods. Especially if older methods have been found biased or even dangerous, you’re probably not doing useful research.
Figures and captions should be clear and necessary
Your figures and tables should be discussed in the results section and in relevant sections of your manuscript.
The numbering of figure captions should be systematic and mentioned in the manuscript body. Editors and reviewers may comment on figures’ visibility and resolution. Many journals clearly state their requirements for figure and table formats.
If your figures are sourced from other sources, they should be cited appropriately.
Above all, your tables and figures should be necessary. If they’re reporting on relatively spurious details, perhaps they can be paraphrased. If you have a lot of data to share, this may belong in an appendix or supplementary information.
Referencing should be comprehensive and in the right format
Your article should follow the journal’s referencing format, whether it’s Vancouver, APA, AMA, IEEE, or some unique mashup.
Show you’re up-to-date on the literature
If you include recent references, editors are likely to consider your contributions to be suitable for a peer review. Your list of references is usually reviewed a bit later, so its specifics may not lead to desk rejection; but it will be checked, so get it right the first time.
Not too few, or too many references
Citing one author several times may raise suspicions, and may show a lack of insight in the research area. A low number of references may also be cause for suspicion.
On the contrary, a huge number of references can show you didn’t properly narrow down the focus of your work as relates to your topic.
Journal editors will also give a general look at the list of references as they seek a better idea of how, or if, the manuscript fits the journal’s scope.
A good cover letter can help “sell” your study to the journal
Don’t overlook the cover letter. Many editors do actually read them. Use the section to give editors an overall grasp of your article. And use it to “sell” your work to this journal.
Exactly how a good cover letter for a job application tells why you’re a great fit for that company and job, and not just any company and job, you should customize it and be specific.
Ensure your study is placed into context in the literature
Put your work in context in the current literature in your field(s). Note how you achieved your results and how you interpret them. Explain briefly how this particular journal is the best place for you to publish your work.
A 1-page cover letter is best
Keep it to 1 page if possible. And don’t just copy the abstract. The editor will quickly see this once they get back the cover letter, and it won’t make a good impression. Sometimes you’ll have to add other information that unavoidably pushes your cover letter over a page. That’s OK.
What to do after a desk rejection
If your manuscript is rejected with a chance for resubmission, first compare it with recent publications in the rejecting journal. This can help inform your corrections.
Follow the journal’s advice
If the editors are good enough to give you a reason for rejection, whether or not you can resubmit, take their advice. Fix your manuscript accordingly.
A previously rejected article should not be resubmitted to the same publisher without the editor’s approval. This may get you a quick desk rejection and it may hurt your chances with that journal, and even that publisher in the future.
Treat the rejection as your fault, not theirs
A rejection is a lesson for you to learn from. The journals owe you nothing. If you didn’t give them something they want, it’s your fault.
Watch out for sales pitches
The only exception, and we’ve witnessed this more than a few times, is that some journals are inclined to desk rejecting manuscripts from non-native speakers of English. This will often come with a boilerplate message and a suggestion to use their recommended editing services.
If you really want to resubmit to that journal, you don’t have to use their editing services. In fact, their services may be overpriced or may be one of the many services that employ low-paid non-inner-circle speakers of English to do their work.
This can leave your paper with English errors and outdated language. That may still get you published, but once it’s published, it’s on the record for all to see, for the rest of your research career – those mistakes follow you forever.
Use a proper editor, not an unskilled freelancer or non-native speaker
We highly recommend you use an editing service with native English speakers, and ideally those who are experienced in your area of expertise (though a precise match is usually not required, especially if you only need a proofread).
Conclusion on avoiding desk rejection, or recovering from it gracefully
Preparing a good manuscript that will be accepted for review and eventually for publication requires determination and perseverance.
Even if you think you’ve done everything right, journal editors are individual people. They have their preferences and biases, and sometimes you just may catch them on a bad day.
If you’ve got a solid study, find another target journal, take any criticism gratefully, revise accordingly, and try again. Your good science needs to be shown to the world, right?
About the author
Adam Goulston is a U.S.-born, Asia-based science marketer, writer, and editor. His company, Scize, helps globally minded scientific businesses and researchers communicate their value. He has edited more than 3,000 scientific manuscripts.