Why journal articles get rejected #1


Some journal articles never get sent out for review. They are rejected at the outset by the Editor. Why is this? Well, there’s a short and a somewhat longer and a very extensive answer to this question. The short answer is that the paper “doesnt fit the journal”. But this post give the somewhat longer answer which explains a little more what “fit” actually means.

First of all, let’s consider the journal. Any journal. Academic journals plural.

Even if they come from the same discipline, academic journals vary. Some are very general and publish papers from a wide range of perspectives and locations within a discipline. In my field the British Journal of Education Research is this kind of general journal. It started out as a British journal, run by a learned society, whose aim was to bring together researchers from within the United Kingdom. The journal not only provided an outlet for British educational researchers but helped to establish education research within the county. Over time, the mission of the journal changed and it now sees itself as an international journal. Other education journal with a country or place in front of their name may also be international in focus, or they may publish work that speaks to the specific country context and/or are mainly by researchers from that location.

Other journals are much more specific and have what we might understand as a sub-disciplinary interest. This interest might for example be a particular theoretical approach, a focus on methodology, or a particular topic. However even journals which appear on the surface to be general may also have a particular focus or take on things. And journals which appear to have the same topic interest may vary a lot. There are for instance in education a number of journals which all appear to be about leadership. Yet these are on a spectrum – at each end are journals which have very different approaches to leading and managing.

These differences are important. If you send something in to a journal which doesn’t sit with the particular purposes and existing body of publications then your paper may well be rejected. If you submit something very local to a journal which is international in its orientation you may well not fit. If you submit to an educational leadership journal which has the “wrong” take on leadership you may very well not do well.

You may not even get past the first post and find your paper sent back to you very soon after it s been submitted. That’s generally because of a decision made by the Editor. Or Editors – because many journals have a number of Editors. The Editors’ job is in part to sort through the papers and allocate them to reviewers. But sorting through papers is always first of all a check to see whether the paper fits with the journal. if the paper doesnt fit the the Editors send it back – this is often called a desk reject.

Why is this? Well. The presence of a journal around a particular topic is an indication that there is enough ‘critical mass’ of people to justify starting a journal. Once started, the job of the journal is to simultaneously build the community of interested scholars and also to bring together their research, to establish the research as a worthy area of study and to encourage conversations within the community. We can think of journals as knowledge-building communities. Editors thus usually see their journals as serving a particular community – general or specific – and having a strong knowledge-building role.

Journal Editors are generally chosen – often via competition – because of their status in the field and their interest in the knowledge-building aspects of the journal. Editors can be conservative – they want to preserve the journal community and so they vigorously police its boundaries. Or they may be interested in taking the journal somewhere new – and they select an Editorial Board, reviewers and write Editorials that signal change. Or Editors might be interest in a knowledge building community which is open and takes risks – and again this is signalled through the Editorial Board, Editorials and choices of reviewers.

So back to the rejection question. When a paper comes across the Editor’s desk they approach it asking first of all “ Is this topic something that is likely to interest some of our readers? Does it potentially add to our knowledge base and the ongoing conversations in the journal?”  If the answer is no, then the Editor sends it back to the author(s). It is a desk reject.

Now it may seem surprising that I am saying this. it’s obvious isn’t it?  But journal editors often say that people sending the paper to the wrong journal is the single biggest reason for rejection. (There are other reasons as well and I’m going to talk about them in future posts). As a former journal editor of a methods journal I can attest to the wrong choices made. Even though the particular method that the journal focused on was in the title of the journal, and the mission statement clearly said that papers had to be about the method, the editorial team were constantly astonished by the number of papers that were submitted that used other methods. These were just returned with the comment that they weren’t about the method.

So the first step to avoid rejection is to make sure that you submit your paper to a journal where it might find a home. And this means doing a bit of homework about the journal to see what kinds of papers they actually publish. Look beyond the mission statement. Have a look at the Editors and the Editorial Board to see if you know their work. Read some Editorials. Look at past issues to see if you can see resonances with your work.  Look at the topics that are written about. Find the papers that are like yours and see where there are points of connection. Look at your reference list and see if this a journal that you read and refer to – a sure sign there is some points of contact between your work and the journal.

And do seek some guidance if your’e not sure. Ask people who are well published in your area which journal they would advise. Ask them to explain the journals and their particular interests. Ask them which journals you might avoid, where your work might not fit.

Doing your homework about a potential journal and its knowledge building aims and practices is important if you are to make sure that you avoid the initial Editorial cull. Getting past the Editor, having them see your paper as a fit with the journal, is of course no guarantee you’ll get published. But you do want to avoid falling at the very first hurdle if you can.

(You can find the extensive answer to the why journal articles get rejected question in Thomson and Kamler (2013) Getting published. Strategies for writing for peer reviewed journals. Routledge. There are also other patter posts about rejection, written a long time ago, if you search.)