Very simple question. Reading some Q&A here and experience from my own papers and reviews I'm actually wondering when and how often the associate editor managing a possible review process of a submitted paper declines to start the process.

Maybe for not reaching formal standards of the journal, or wrong scope. If these points are fullfilled, will the associate editor always start to look for appropriate reviewers?

Once I heard in a talk of a physical review letters employee they get 10.000 submissions per year and 1.000 articles are finally published. I cannot believe they start 10.000 review processes, this would be a waste of everybody's time. On the other side every physicist knows PRL is the most prestigious journal in the field and you cannot submit garbage. So I believe most of the 10.000 submissions fulfill the formal standards. Based on which criterions the associate editor will then not start the review process? Age/quality of references, abstract, his historic and topical background and expertise? I never was associate editor myself but I guess they don't read the full article, but skim abstract, introduction, figures, references and conclusion maybe?

3 Answers 3


I'll give you my perspective as an co-Editor-in-Chief and previously an Associate Editor of the ACM Transactions on Mathematical Software (ACM TOMS):

  • As Editor-in-Chief, I take a brief look at each paper and decide whether it even makes sense to move forward with it. I would say that between 10 and 20% of the papers are already filtered out at this stage: They are not within scope of the journal, or are obviously not at the level we expect -- we get our fair share of submissions from second and third world countries (and some from first world countries) that are at the level of semester projects for advanced graduates.

  • As Editor-in-Chief, many submissions I get are not within my research area. The ones already filtered out above are obviously not acceptable, but then there are many that I suspect are not good enough, but where I don't know the area well enough to make the call. These get handed on to the Associate Editors, often with a note that they should take a look whether I'm right or wrong in suspecting that the paper does not meet our criteria.

  • As Associate Editor (before I became EiC), I then reject another ~15% or so based on my subject area knowledge.

So I suspect that for this journal -- a fairly reputable one with one of the highest impact factors as far as math journals go --, about 1/4 of the papers get rejected without being sent out to review. Of course, then another 1/3 to 1/2 or so of the rest get rejected after review.


This obviously depends a lot on the journal. I've never heard of an article being not being sent for review for (say) Classical and Quantum Gravity. But in the case of Physical Review Letters, rejections by the editorial desk are quite common, with the most commonly cited reason being the significance of the work is not clear (enough).

For a good PRL submission the significance of the work needs to be clear to non-field expert readers from reading the abstract/introduction. So, if its not clear to the editor what the significance of the Letter is from reading the introduction, the submission is simply not good enough for PRL.

  • I can virtually guarantee that Classical and Quantum Gravity do not send some papers out for review either. At the very least, they should desk reject a paper that's out of scope.
    – Allure
    Nov 25, 2019 at 2:16
  • @Allure I am sure they do. I don't want to know how much actual garbage gets submitted. But unlike for PRL, I just don't know of any cases from colleagues (who know better than to submit garbage).
    – TimRias
    Nov 25, 2019 at 9:00

It's certainly not the case that "you can't submit garbage" to PRL. In fact I'd wager that the more prestigious a journal, the more garbage they receive. From the author's perspective, it doesn't cost them anything (except time) to submit, and the worst that can happen is a desk rejection, so why not.

The review process starts immediately. If the associate editor does not invite reviewers but elects to desk reject, that's still part of the review process. Therefore I interpret your question as asking what makes the editor send the paper out to an external reviewer. In this case it's not that hard to decide. You read the paper to get a grasp of what it's trying to say. You don't read it in enough detail to understand everything, but you understand what its innovations are and why they matter. And then you make a decision whether it's interesting/important enough to send for review.

Note that PRL has loads of full-time PhD staff, so it's quite believable that they start 10,000 review processes a year.

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