A Desk Rejection Scorecard (guest post by Antti Kauppinen)

The following is a guest post* by Antti Kauppinen, currently an Academy of Finland Research Fellow at the Department of Philosophy at the University of Tampere, and soon to be (as of 2018) Professor of Social and Moral Philosophy at the University of Helsinki. It’s about improving desk rejection: the practice of editors at academic journals rejecting papers without first sending them out to peer reviewers.

A Desk Rejection Scorecard
by Antti Kauppinen

Sometimes my papers get desk rejected by prestigious journals. (I know—crazy, isn’t it?) Apparently, I’m not the only one to whom this happens. And it seems that I’m not the only one who is left not only with bandaged pride but also a great deal of puzzlement: What was wrong with it? How could I improve it, and is it even worth trying? This is because desk rejections standardly come with no feedback whatsoever, since editors don’t have time to write comments on everything. This makes perfect sense, but I’m going to suggest a small tweak that might provide potentially significant benefit for authors at very little cost to editors.

The proposal is simple: journals should have a desk rejection scorecard containing a list of most common reasons for rejection, and editors should tick all the boxes that apply. Here’s an initial sketch:

Thank you for your interest in publishing in the Journal of Prestigious Studies. Unfortunately, our editor or associate editor has decided against sending your paper for review. Because of the great volume of submissions to the journal, we cannot give comments on all the papers. However, the boxes ticked on the following standardized feedback form give some idea of the grounds for our decision.

We have decided against sending the paper for review for the following reasons (all applicable ones are ticked):

[ ] Not original enough
[ ] Not clear enough or stylistically poor
[ ] Doesn’t sufficiently engage with the literature
[ ] Doesn’t sufficiently advance the debate
[ ] Topic not important or interesting enough
[ ] Fails to satisfactorily address objections
[ ] Not a good fit for this journal
[ ] Other

This is just a first pass. I’ve derived these from some virtues of a good philosophy paper—originality, clear and engaging style, responsible scholarship, making a significant contribution to an interesting debate, and anticipating objections. I’m sure there are more, and people who actually have editorial experience could likely come up with a better list.

I think the benefits of the proposal for authors are obvious. If I got a rejection with only the “Not original enough” box ticked, I’d do my best to highlight what I think is new about my paper. (Note that not ticking a box can also convey a lot of information—for example, I can infer that the paper is clear enough from the fact that the box “Not clear enough” isn’t ticked.) If I got a rejection with both “Not original enough” and “Doesn’t sufficiently engage with the literature” ticked, I’d think “I need to check out what that goddamn Dale Dorsey has published this time”. If the rejection said “Doesn’t sufficiently advance the debate”, I might think “OK, I’m making a minor new point—maybe I’ll try a specialist journal”. And so on.

I should say that this proposal isn’t in any way radically revisionary, since some journals already give feedback along these lines, at least on an ad hoc basis. For example, I recently had a paper desk rejected by the Journal of Political Philosophy (I use the name, because I’m about to praise them). It took them only a few days, and they said basically “It’s an interesting paper, but the political angle isn’t all that developed. You should try an ethics journal or a generalist one.” That was very useful (and fair enough—I had only sent it to JPP because a friend recommended doing so), and the paper is now under review elsewhere, unchanged. Using the scorecard wouldn’t have conveyed all of that information, but having only the “Not fit for this journal” box would have done much the same.

So, let’s say this is good for authors. If there’s an objection to the proposal, it would have to be that it imposes an additional burden on already overburdened editors. But does it? Presumably, editors who reject a paper read it first, or at least read some of it, and have some grounds for their decision beyond “My gut tells me this isn’t good enough”. For example, I can imagine editors reading some of my (luckily, now published) papers and having thoughts along the following lines: “Great, another fucking paper about how empathy isn’t so bad for morality—if only you could feel my pain reading this shit”; “Narrow scope, wide scope, why not fucking periscope… Louise, wake me when this paper is over!”; “Oh, it’s all about narrative, is it? Well, here’s a sad fucking story for you: you sent a paper to a journal, and then it got rejected.” These are the kind of thoughts that occur unbidden when one is reading a paper one doesn’t like. Each would easily translate to checking one or more of the boxes above.

So what’s not to like?


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