Why an Editor Might Reject your Manuscript
Russell Kirby, PhD, MS, FACE, Distinguished University Professor and Marrell Endowed Chair, University of South Florida

Submitting original scientific research to peer-reviewed journals is one of the only ways to recognize your research. Unfortunately, submission implies a risk of rejection. Although it is always disappointing to receive an email from a journal editor indicating that your manuscript is rejected, this is part of the peer-review process and should not be taken as a personal affront. In my almost 40 years of experience submitting, reviewing, and editing with numerous journals, it remains rare for one of my papers to be accepted at the first journal to which it is submitted. While this does happen, on average, my papers are accepted at the third journal to which we submit, and my personal record for a paper that was eventually published is nine journals. My personal record for speediest rejection was less than two hours – we submitted the manuscript, went to lunch at an off-campus restaurant, and an email rejection letter was waiting when I checked my email on return to my office. 

Editors have many considerations in deciding how to handle your manuscript. Most journals have a ‘desk rejection’ rate of 20 to 50 percent. In other words, from one in five to half of the submissions are rejected without going to peer review. There are many reasons for desk rejection, but all start with the fact that for many journals, there is a limit to the number of articles or number of print pages that can be published each year, and most journals receive far more submissions than could be accepted and published. Even open access journals that require author publication fees but have no publication limits have reasons to desk reject some submissions.   Here are some other reasons editors might desk reject your paper.

  1. Most journals have specific subject matter foci, and in the editor’s view, your paper may be deemed to fall outside the primary interest area of the journal. To avoid this, read the journal guidelines for submission, and page through the last few issues of the journal online, to see what topics have been published recently. If your study doesn’t seem to be a good fit, it’s likely the editor will also feel that way.
  2. Editors also don’t desire to publish manuscripts that are very similar to those recently published or in the publication process. On a personal note, a few years ago, a junior faculty member I was mentoring, submitted a manuscript to a highly regarded environmental health journal.  Our paper was not reviewed; instead, the editor shared the page proofs of a forthcoming paper, which presented exactly the same analysis, with the same dataset, but with a more sophisticated approach than ours. We did not proceed with that particular line of research.
  3. Editors are always interested in studies that advance knowledge or extend research methods in various ways. That your study is similar to one published in the leading competitive journal will not be sufficient to generate interest unless it is done extremely well, with a larger sample size, more current data, stronger study design, and more thorough statistical analysis. Even then, the editor of the higher tier journal may decide to desk reject.
  4. Editors also look for current data, study designs at higher levels of evidence, results relevant to their readership, and concise, well-written manuscripts. If the journal is affiliated with an American professional society, occasional papers from western Europe or elsewhere may appear, but a study from a rural region of Ethiopia is not likely a good fit. Data that are more than five years old will be of less interest, especially if there is a more recent wave of data from the survey or administrative data source analyzed. The quality of your scientific English may be so poor that the editor does not wish to waste reviewer time until this is corrected.

Many manuscript submissions do undergo peer review. Typically, editors desire at least two peer reviews from which to make an editorial decision, and on rare occasions, you might get reviews from as many as five. Assuming the peer reviewers provide competent and helpful reviews, often the recommendations are congruent. Reviewers are counseled not to make specific comments regarding potential for publication in their review, but often the author can surmise their sentiments from the nature of the major comments provided. 

Sometimes, the editor will make a decision that seems to run counter to that of the reviewers. Again, as an author, one doesn’t know all the considerations editors must weigh in deciding to accept your manuscript, recommending revision, or rejecting it after peer review. While it is perfectly appropriate to ask for clarification unless there are extenuating circumstances, authors should not engage in lengthy arguments with editors concerning their decision. In my personal experience (almost 350 peer-reviewed publications), only once or twice has a conversation with an editor led to a reversal of a decision to reject a manuscript, and even then, at least one additional round of peer review following revision and resubmission was required.

Researchers should respect the peer review process, which is designed to improve your work prior to publication. If the first journal rejects your manuscript following an initial review, it is professionally inappropriate to simply reformat the original publication and submit it to a second journal without any editing or modification. This will likely lead to a second rejection because the field of potential reviewers on any specific subject is limited, and there’s a good chance the same reviewer will be asked to look at your manuscript a second time. And they will notice that you have not addressed any of the major comments or made copy edits to improve your writing. I know this because it has happened in my personal experience at least five times, and my typical response is to submit the same critique as before since the manuscript hasn’t been edited or improved as it should have been.

These are a few of the major reasons why an editor might reject your manuscript. The moral of the story is to write clearly and succinctly, present your findings cogently, select journals that are appropriate venues for your results, and be prepared for initial rejection. Use the reviewer and editor comments to improve your work and make your paper stronger prior to resubmission. There is a journal out there for almost every paper, but sometimes it takes a while to find your match.