Desk Rejections

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I know the feeling. It has happened to me more than once, twice and thrice. ‘They didn’t even send it to peer review?!*&%#@.’ On one occasion it was subsequently published in another journal and is one of my most cited pieces!

Regrettably, neither EJIL nor I•CON has the human resources to send a fully reasoned letter to authors in all cases of desk rejections. We therefore want to set out here and explain the procedure at these Journals that results in a desk rejection.

Context is important. Both EJIL and I•CON publish around 60-70 articles a year. This means that we receive many good articles that we are unable to publish. It also means that each decision to publish is, in some ways, at the expense of another article that we will not be able to publish. There is, thus, a ‘zero-sum game’ involved, at least in the back of our minds. We mention this to emphasize that we are doubly aware of the importance to our authors and to the journal of these decisions, and they are never taken lightly.

Every single article received is read by at least two persons: one of the Associate Editors (all of whom are in various stages of advanced study, some are already established academics) and one of the Editors-in-Chief. We allocate the reading task on the basis of subject-matter proximity to the expertise of the readers. In many cases, the article is also read by another Associate Editor or the other Editor-in-Chief, either because the article caught their eye or because the responsible editor had doubts and asked others to read along. Thus, when the monthly editorial meetings open with the agenda item ‘screened articles’, between two and five members of the editorial team discuss each piece.

In cases of highly specialized fields or when we feel we might not be familiar with the latest research, not infrequently we turn to a member of the Editorial Board of the Journal or an external expert for help in the screening decision. If perplexities remain, we send the piece to peer review.

Which factors are brought to bear in the screening decision? These can be divided into ‘curatorial’ and ‘editorial’ decisions. EJIL and I•CON are journals of general interest in public law and international law, respectively. One curatorial aim is to make each issue of interest to as a broad a readership as possible – meaning that all of our subscribers and readers will hopefully find in each issue at least one or more pieces of interest and from which they may profit. So, on occasion (not frequently), we see very good articles which, however, we might consider ‘too specialized’ and more fitting for a specialized journal, bearing in mind, too, the zero-sum game. We may have published, to give another example, in the last two years a couple of articles partially covering similar ground. That might weigh against publishing a third piece so soon afterwards. There are no hard and fast rules here, but I think our authors will understand that we cannot altogether avoid some curatorial considerations in our screening decisions.

‘Editorial’ decisions go to the quality of the submission. In our screening deliberations and decisions, we are acutely aware that we are not infallible and that there might be both false positives and false negatives. However, editors cannot outsource the responsibility to screen and select by sending everything to peer review. Peer reviewing is a precious and scarce resource, especially since we expect our peer reviewers to write a thorough and reasoned report rather than a brief conclusory statement. We use our best judgment and our accumulated experience, and if the team decides that the quality of the article is such that it will not in its present form pass peer review, we will decide on a rejection. Common examples of such might be failure to deliver on the promises announced at the beginning of the article, insufficient engagement with existing relevant literatures, obvious methodological weaknesses, especially in the increasingly popular empirical studies, and, finally, plain and simple: poor organization and writing. We habitually see submissions with true promise but which are rushed and, in our view, prematurely submitted. It is, we believe, always advisable, where possible, to have a piece ‘workshopped’ once or twice before submission.  Frequently, when we spot an article with a lot of promise, but which in our judgment will not pass peer review as it stands, we write to the author with our reservations and encourage that person to work further and submit the piece at a later stage. Quite a few pieces eventually published in both journals initially fell into this category.

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Robert L Howse says

November 14, 2022

The US student-edited international law journals are a competitive alternative. It is possible to submit simultaneously to dozens of them on a web platform. The best of them are very frequently read and cited by scholars throughout the world. Unfortunately, in some institutions peer reviewed publications are required for tenure and/or promotion. Once past the tenure hurdle, though, the student-edited journals are very attractive.

John Morss says

November 16, 2022

May I respond to Howse? Imho, US student-edited law journals (and regrettably some Australian law journals I have tried to publish in, naming no names...) exemplify poor practice in desk rejection -- ie poorly informed and in effect discriminatory -- a far cry from the careful and respectful process explained above for EJIL. (Not that I agree with every decision to publish made by EJIL over the years: I do think acceptances have sometimes been over-swayed by flashiness and novelty of vocabulary/ methodology).