Give your academic paper its best chance of being accepted

Peer review is a key step in the journey to publication in that prestigious journal, but not every paper gets to this stage. Here are key reasons for desk rejection and how to avoid them

Cheong Fan's avatar
23 Oct 2023
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What to do when an academic journal rejects your article
3 minute read
Man reading rejection letter

Desk rejection rates range from 20 per cent to 50 per cent, and recent studies have proposed hypotheses regarding the underlying causes and institutional norms for papers being rejected before they are sent for peer review. Receiving a desk-reject verdict, which is also called summary review or editorial triage, can be upsetting and frustrating for authors.

The reasons for rejection I highlight here are frequently given by peer-reviewed publications, but the advice shared is wholly based on my educational background and experiences with tourism research. My observations are intended to help writers navigate the submission procedure and craft their submissions more effectively.

Rejection reason 1: misalignment with journal aims and scope

Papers can be rejected for not fitting in with the journal’s mission and criteria. So a writer’s first (and most crucial) step should be to select the appropriate journal for their article. For example, ensure that your paper is within the journal’s scope based on the consideration of their reputation and impact scores. Choose the target journal before you complete writing your manuscript. In other words, when establishing your research ideas and composing your article, consider the journals you want to submit to.

Authors should:

  • read the target journal’s objectives and scope carefully
  • read papers that have been published in recent issues of the target journal
  • volunteer themselves as the potential reviewer for the target journal.

In your manuscript, you must cite essential works that show how your study relates to the target journal’s mission. In your cover letter to the editor, highlight how your research relates to the journal’s readers and scope.

Rejection reason 2: lack of originality and importance

Academic journals look for submissions that expand on concepts and present fresh theoretical perspectives. It goes without saying that you must submit a well-written piece that is the result of rigorous research. A paper that does not make an original contribution to knowledge or highlight its distinct contributions is unlikely to be submitted for peer review, even if it tests a known theory in a novel context. For example, a study lacks innovation if it has not generated new ideas and simply repeats the experiment in another location.

To avoid rejection on these grounds, the researcher should critically analyse the most recent research and relevant theories, make clear any gaps that need to be filled and provide evidence to back up any claims they make about new additions in their work.

Authors are advised to:

  • pay attention to the structured abstract and take advantage of the opportunity to underline the novelty and significance of their research
  • describe the originality and significance of their paper in the cover letter.

Although determining the originality of a piece of research is challenging and contentious, useful markers include new concepts, fresh approaches and fresh data, as well as information that has been expanded to previously unrecognised or inconceivable dimensions. This requires us to do an effective literature review based on the past five years’ papers.

Rejection reason 3: lack of rigour

If the research has faults or could have been done more effectively it might be rejected before peer review, even if you pick an appropriate study topic and strongly argue for your unique findings. Research rigour refers to the level of intellectual coherence and integrity displayed in the study and the inclusion of sound and valuable concepts, analyses, sources, theories and procedures. Conceptual ambiguity, weaknesses in the supporting evidence and, most frequently, poor study methods can all be problems. Mismatches between the study aim and methodologies adopted, poor data quality, potential bias in respondent selection, unsuitable data analysis procedures and a lack of rigour in the data analysis are all examples of flawed research methodology.

To be considered for publication, the paper must meet the criteria for quality and exhibit the highest standard of academic writing. The quality level of the manuscript will also depend on its organisation, argument clarity, logical flow and coherence. Ask a supervisor or trusted coworker to read your manuscript before you submit it, so you can receive their frank opinion on how to improve it. If you struggle with English, hire a native speaker to edit your work or use a reputable proofreading service.

Most journals follow the publisher's format, and papers should conform to that style.

Authors are advised to:

  • use a text-similarity checking tool to help them spot any plagiarism, as some journals’ requirements are more strict
  • use professional copy editing services if you are not a native English speaker.

This article summarises contributing editors’ critical points on the reasons for desk rejection to help researchers avoid common pitfalls and so advance to the reviewer stage by submitting a strong, cohesive paper with a clear contribution and novelty.

Cheong Fan is a lecturer at the School of Liberal Arts at the Macau University of Science and Technology.

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