What Does a Manuscript Rejection Really Mean? (Probably Not What You Think)
by Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM
As I’ve mentioned previously, science is a failure business. Whether it’s a manuscript, a job search, or a grant application, the odds are that you’ll experience one or more rejections on the way to success. But what does rejection mean in this context? Does it mean you’re a bad writer, a bad candidate, or a bad scientist? The answer is a solid “maybe.” You could be a bad writer, or someone who presents themselves poorly, or you could have some half-baked hypotheses, but these things are all amenable to change. Often, rejection comes for reasons that have nothing to do with you or your manuscript, and understanding these causes can help you focus on what is modifiable.
For those who publish infrequently, the reasons for manuscript rejection can be mystifying. Due to the sheer volume of manuscripts received by journals, specific feedback from editors who desk reject manuscripts simply isn’t possible (but you can ask), and peer review comments aren’t always informative. The most common reason for desk rejection of a manuscript is fit with the scope of the journal. As I’ve written before, people can choose a target journal for their manuscript for the wrong reasons. Before submitting to a journal, it’s always wise to review the scope of the journal and search for articles similar to your manuscript that have been published there recently. If the scope doesn’t seem to include your methods or topic, and the journal hasn’t published anything like it in the last five years, your manuscript may not be a good fit. It’s possible to query the editor(s) at some journals regarding the appropriateness of your topic and methods, but not all editors allow this or will respond (we do at JPHMP). If acceptable, I would advise sending the abstract rather than the topic or full manuscript. The abstract has enough information (if it’s written properly) to assess fit. Does a positive assessment of fit mean that your manuscript will be accepted? No. But it will reduce your chances of a desk rejection. Again, it’s important that the abstract you send the editor is consistent with their preferred format, and informative regarding the methods employed. Some journals are very specific with the type of methodology or data they will publish, so read the instructions to authors carefully before sending a query. No one wants to answer a question that could have been prevented with a quick Google search and some reading comprehension.
Fit is the most likely reason non-modifiable reason for rejection, but there are others that can come into play. Scope of the research (national/international vs. local), age of the data, recency of the topic, sample size, and analytical strategy will all be considered by the editorial team when deciding to advance a manuscript to peer review. As an editor, I always ask myself when reading a manuscript if I think the resulting article could (with substantial revision) become an impactful paper. If the answer is no, I will desk reject the manuscript, which brings up an important point: write a good cover letter. Hit the editor over the head with the significance of the work. Don’t over sell the manuscript, but be specific about how the findings in your manuscript advance the field. Related, be sure to follow all instructions to authors very closely as many journals will return or reject articles that are incorrectly formatted. Pay close attention to your spelling and grammar. If you have a colleague who is good at editing, have access to one at your institution, or can afford a professional technical editor, utilize their services. Few editors are willing to read through a sloppy manuscript to find the nugget of wisdom you’re trying to present.
In the end, it’s still a failure business, but failure doesn’t have to be permanent. Don’t let rejection stop you from publishing your work. It it’s well written and important to the field, your manuscript will find a home. Good luck!
Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM, is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Implementation Science of the Wake Forest School of Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Follow him at Twitter and Instagram. [Full Bio]