Desk Rejection

Is a 75% desk rejection rate too much?

Peter Howley
4 min readJun 22, 2020

After reflecting on a recent desk rejection I am left considering the pros and cons of something I have observed in recent times — namely a more hands on approach by Journal Editors when it comes to handling initial submissions. From a cursory glance at editor’s reports it would seem that most of the main journals in economics and increasingly in other disciplines desk reject at least half of all papers with some significantly more. For instance, I recently received a desk rejection informing me that I was in good company in that 75% of all submissions to that particular journal were desk rejected.

As with everything there are of course advantages and disadvantages. I have certainly appreciated a thoughtful desk rejection by an editor on more than one occasion. It is easy to become so enamoured with the quality of ones’ work to overestimate its contribution and so a desk rejection no doubt saves a lot of time for me as well as saves reviewers effort by having an early decision.

In terms of cons I thought a useful way of approaching this issue was to consider what are the characteristics of papers that pass initial editor screening versus those who don’t.

1. For journals that desk reject a substantive number of initial submissions then clearly papers that get past the initial editor screening are likely to make a more substantive contribution. Editors are experts in their field, often well versed in assessing quality quickly and are concerned with finding the best papers to publish. This of course does not mean that many excellent submissions will not be desk rejected but that on average you would expect a significant difference in both groups in terms of overall quality of the submissions.

2. The papers will be more closely aligned with editors own tastes and preferences. I often think this is the biggest determining factor behind desk rejects.

3. Editors are human and much like the rest of us subject to unconscious bias. Assumptions about gender, ethnicity, nationality, and institutions can creep into the decision making of even the most well-intentioned journal editor. See here and here for an interesting discussion on this point.

4. Given the increasing number of submissions and demands on editor’s times, journal editors can ill afford to give more than a cursory examination of any one paper. What is likely to impress editors here? Novel and/or ‘sexy’ findings is likely to be key but what is novel and compelling for one person may be gross overreaching for another. One could assume that this will be picked up at the review stage but the review process is inherently noisy. In essence therefore it becomes a self-selection problem. The papers that make it past the initial editor scrutiny are likely to be the most ‘striking’ with the most far-reaching implications for science. This could play a part in issues surrounding reproducibility and replicability in science as with very high desk rejections it seems increasingly likely that you end up publishing papers with big promises.

So is desk rejection a good idea? On balance I think so as engagement and early decision making by editors is a good thing but we need to be aware of the costs and I suggest greater transparency is important. Is, for example, desk rejecting three quarters of all submissions a good thing? While many editors go to great efforts to provide a thoughtful and constructive rejection letter, in other cases there is no evidence that a review of any description took place. Is it fair to characterise journals with very high levels of desk rejection as peer review journals or do we need a new term. What are the implications of an increasing reliance on desk rejects for the integration of new ideas outside the mainstream? What about the career aspirations of people from outside elite institutions or minority groups?

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Peter Howley

Doing research well is hard. With a focus on early career researchers Prof Peter Howley (Econ & behavioural science) will provide some helpful (hopefully!) tips