A disturbing trend in author reactions to article rejection

Paul A. Kirschner, Jeroen Janssen

As Editors of a scholarly journal, we’re steadfast in our belief that every paper submitted to us needs to be assessed for its suitability for our journal based on the scope and quality of the paper, and not based on any conscious or subconscious biases against or towards the authors. We have rigorous procedures in place to support this.

A fair peer-review process and/or editor evaluation is absolutely fundamental in academic publishing, and we as the editorial team support and ensure this is the case in journals we hold editorial or reviewer roles on.

As authors ourselves we know how incredibly disappointing a rejection decision is. In the last year or two, we’ve seen an increase in a certain type of email from authors whose submissions have been rejected. It used to be the typical disappointed email’ or an email telling us that we misread the paper, or a disbelieving author trying to convince us to reverse our decision. As an author I too have sporadically sent such a letter to an editor, though most times I practised what I preach to my PhDs, namely: If you feel that the editor and/or reviewers saw or read the paper wrong, you probably wrote it wrong. In Dutch we say “Trek zelf het boetekleed aan” which roughly translated means “Seek the problem in yourself”.

Lately, we’ve begun receiving a new genre of email that isn’t ‘disappointed’ but rather is ‘indignant’ or even ‘accusatory’. In these emails, the tone, and also the wording, is that we rejected the paper, not for the reasons we said, but rather because we were prejudiced against the author in some way. Luckily these emails are rare, but for us, it’s something new and worrying. This blog is about just such an email.

Though we’d love to share a recent email and further correspondence about our rejection of a submission, but our own ethical standards won’t allow this as we don’t want to impinge upon the author’s privacy. To this end, we’ll be as generic as possible.

Some background: For those of you not in academia, as a journal editor you can and must make a number of decisions with respect to a submission. The first decision is whether to send an article out for review. One reason not to send a submission for review out is that it isn’t complete. That means, for example, that it’s missing one or more required elements like whether it had received ethical approval or that the submission wasn’t sufficiently anonymised as this makes ‘blind review’ (i.e., reviewers shouldn’t know who the authors are). If this is the case, it’s just sent back to the authors with a request to resubmit it with the necessary changes for sending it out for review. Another reason is that the submission doesn’t fit the journal; that is, that the article is out of the journal’s scope. Every journal has on its website its aims and its scope. A journal on reading instruction will most probably desk-reject a submission studying mathematics or geography instruction as being out-of-scope and a journal on the use of computers in education will most probably desk-reject a submission where computers and their derivatives aren’t used.

The submitted article was ‘desk-rejected’ as it was considered by us to be ‘out-of-scope’ for our journal.

The author began, not with trying to convince us that it did fit within the scope of the journal but rather by accusing us of basing our decision on the researchers’ country of origin and not on its value.

Country of origin: Going back to the preliminary decision workflow in more detail, after the editorial office carries out a ‘triage’ to root out papers that have been improperly submitted, whether the submission has been anonymised, and has checked for and flagged possible plagiarism. Those papers successfully making it through this process go through a second ‘triage’ to determine whether they will be sent out for peer review. The reason for this is that we want to spare (1)  our reviewers extra unneeded work by not sending them articles that we know will be rejected because they are clearly not within the scope of the journal or articles that are far/irreparably below par with respect to their scientific quality and (2) submitters the wait-time between submission and certain rejection so as to allow them to submit the article elsewhere. After these two triages have taken place, the paper goes to two or three reviewers who then carry out their reviews and suggest a disposition. We then make the final decision. In doing this we never look at either who the submitter is or what her/his/their affiliation is and the reviewers cannot see these things as the review process for them is completely blind.
In other words, a submission’s country of origin plays absolutely no role in the decision-making process.

Value: Remember here, the article was desk-rejected as out-of-scope. After having looked at the submission we notified the lead author that we had read it and that it, in our opinion, described interesting work in the area of online education.
In other words, we thought that it had value for the field of education and learning.

The author then proceeds to accuse us of not informing her/him/them about why we didn’t send the paper out for review.

In the journal’s aims and scope it states that in order to be considered for inclusion in the journal, “proof of actual learning is required. Short but sweet here: The article that was submitted didn’t study or measure actual learning; it measured students’ attitudes. This doesn’t mean that the article is of lesser value, but rather that it didn’t fit the scope of our journal.

To quote ourselves: Though we found the paper interesting and of value, “we feel that your study does not fit sufficiently with the scope of the journal. [The journal] aims to publish studies that investigate how educational technology affects learning processes and learning outcomes. We especially value manuscripts that measure learning processes and learning outcomes. Your paper does not seem to address these issues empirically, unfortunately.

IMHO, the reason for rejecting the paper is very clearly stated. Neither learning processes nor learning outcomes were studied in the research.

Apparently, the author did see the reason as they then tell us that our scope is misleading as our journal is full of similar articles and that if it had come from a prestigious university we would have made a different decision and thus that we were racist and colonial.

First off, the author is correct in that similar articles have been published in the journal, but… ‘similar’ is not equivalent to ‘the same’. While we have published articles that report on students’ beliefs or attitudes with respect to their learning, they also measured actual learning. This is an important difference! We really can’t see what’s misleading about “proof of actual learning is required”?

Second, if an author from Harvard or Stanford had submitted an article where learning wasn’t measured, it also would have been, and has been in the past, rejected without hesitation. As stated earlier, we do this triage without looking at the author and/or the affiliation.

Receiving a rejection letter from a journal isn’t a pleasant experience. We know this as we’re not ‘professional editors’ but are also researchers who carry out research, write articles and then submit them to journals. These fruits of our labour are also sometimes rejected. But as scholars in the field of learning, we’re acquainted with ‘attribution theory’ which explains how we perceive the causality of different events as being either externally based (it’s their fault, they don’t like me, they’re biased against me,…) or internally based (my paper wasn’t good enough, I really didn’t describe it properly, I should have submitted it elsewhere,…). It’s so easy to blame others when something doesn’t go the way we want it to go (external attribution) instead of looking at ourselves (internal attribution). As I preach to my PhDs, it is always best to seek the problem in ourselves before we blame others. Had the author done this, a lot of time and grief could have been saved for all of us.