Scientific papers can fall at many hurdles in the peer review process, which is what it’s there for. However, not even reaching peer review because an editor rejected it, can be really hard to swallow. It’s called rejected without review and here’s why it happens.

If you write scientific papers, you will some day get rejected. It is a guarantee that you just have to face in this science business. The reasons for rejection can be numerous and whether you agree or not with the decision, the simple answer is do more research, go somewhere else or argue with the editor.

However, there is one type of rejection that is particularly hard to swallow: rejection without peer review. The editor has read your paper and decided unilaterally that it will not be gracing the pages of their journal.

While a decision like this will no doubt make you question the value of a p-value, it is really, really common.

You can probably accept top flight journals (i.e. the ones with stratospheric impact factors) accepting only 5% of the submissions they receive. Here is what the Lancet say about this. This group of journals are, after all, the Harper’s and Queen’s of the scientific world, and only publish ground breaking content. It’s probably good to leave them to their game.

However, if you cast your eye down the rankings and into the more specialist outlets, rejecting papers without review starts to look a bit more tenuous. Surely, you might think, it should be up to the peers in the peer review process to decide the value of the paper and whether it should be published.

Reasons

So, on the basis of what I have seen, and I know what others have come across, the judgments go something like this for a pre-review rejection:

  1. The journal’s scope is different to the topic of the paper you submitted.
  2. The editor judges that their audience might not be interested in your manuscript.
  3. Presentation of a manuscript does not follow the journal’s instructions for authors.
  4. The article contains significant swathes of plagarised content.
  5. The quality of English language use is poor.
  6. The research is poor. The conclusions obviously do not reflect the results.
  7. The topic of the paper is too specialised/ niche (even though the journal might already be about a niche!).
  8. The results presented are too preliminary or superficial.
  9. Editors worry about negative results. They might be scientifically valid, but they worry that too many might drive readers away from the journal.
  10. The findings might be competitive to the scientific editor’s opinion or worse, their own research (it happens, it’s called the “in-crowd” effect).
  11. Competitive research groups will do anything to kill papers of other emerging research groups. Sometimes they happen to also be editors of journals.

Note: Many editors will fiercely disagree with the last three points. They are difficult to prove with respect to individual manuscripts but the conflicts of interest that can arise in the peer-review and editorial system are enormous. By rights, academic editors should back away from making decisions on manuscripts where they have a clear conflict of interest. Sometimes though, it doesn’t happen like that.

Resources

However, there are some very understandable reasons for rejecting papers without review. According to the publishers of many journals, they have limited resources and they must juggle them to make sure they produce the best quality publication. This is fair enough.

They are also aware of keeping reviewers on side. Reviewers tend to provide their services for free. Overburdening them would simply alienate them. So, making sure they don’t push shoddy work on them is also an arguement.

“We receive far more submissions than we could ever publish and thus [rejecting without review] is a necessity,” says Jillian M. Buriak, an associate editor at ACS Nano.

“The number of submissions, the numbers of papers we have space for, and the availability of reviewers means a large fraction of papers submitted to ACS Nano must be rejected without review” she continues writing in an editorial in the journal.

Buriak concedes that this is a “nasty business” but resources simply mean they can not handle the volume of interest from potential authors. It still means that authors rejected by this method can quite rightly feel very… rejected. The very tenet of the peer review system – a careful analysis by peers of the work of the author – is sidestepped.

Many editors argue that without this process, the publication of all manuscripts would be delayed. And yet, authors (i.e. the scientists) worry that good papers get incorrectly rejected, possibly because of an editor’s inexperience or lack of knowledge.

Naturally, we should really ask if publishers have actually scientifically tested the benefits of this approach. The New England Journal of Medicine, The Lancet and Nature have had this sort of policy in place for years. Where they go, others often follow.

Evidence

It was with this in mind that the Annals of Neurology (impact factor: a solid 10.7) set about randomly trialling whether editorial screening (read: rejection without review) made any difference to the time between submission and acceptance and whether it made a difference to the perceived impact of the published paper. The control was traditional peer review without screening.

You can read the full report here: Early editorial manuscript screening versus obligate peer review: a randomized trial (full reference at base).

In terms of submitted papers, they found that it took 48 days for a paper to pass through traditional peer review. With editorial screening, it took just 18 days. Via post publication review they found no difference in the perceived impact of the papers they published via both processes.

They did not systematically test the authors’ views on the different approaches and subsequent impression of the journal.

Result? Editorial screening is now journal policy. It is now a policy at many decent journals.

Infinite Shelf Space

There is an alternative route. The internet, and its infinite shelf space means that journals have much less of an excuse for such a policy.

PLoS One have used this to their own advantage essentially publishing anything that is scientifically/technically valid and subsequently accepted. They do not focus on one particular topic and do not assess potential “impact”. They say that is for the community to judge after publication. PLoS One’s acceptance rate is 69% of submissions according to its editors. In just 5 years, they have become the biggest journal globally.

If you end up in the position of rejected without review, keep calm. However, it is good to understand why your paper was rejected. Make enquiries. Hopefully the editor will at least give you a good reason, so you can make an informed choice on your next move. However, be warned, they might not and it can be infuriating.

References

(among others, linked to above)

Buriak JM (2010). Rejecting without Review: The Whys, the Hows. ACS Nano 4 (9): 4963–4964. DOI: 10.1021/nn1022318

Johnston SC et al (2007). Early editorial manuscript screening versus obligate peer review: A randomized trial. Annals of  Neurology 61: A10–A12. DOI: 10.1002/ana.21150

10.1002/ana.21150

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