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After 1.5 years of hard work on a project, my former supervisor sent our paper to a journal. After about 10 hours, they sent the following response:

After careful internal editorial consideration of your manuscript, we regret to inform you that we have decided not to pursue further peer review. We receive an extensive number of quality manuscripts each week and must make difficult decisions regarding which to progress in the peer-review process. Generally, no editorial comments are available for papers that are not sent for external peer review.

My professor said that these kinds of things are happening frequently nowadays.

I supposed that is because of sanction (we are Iranian). Is this likely to be the case?

We are ordinary people with an academic background who caught up in tensions between countries and do not know what to do. I am going to pursue my Ph.D. in a university in Europe, Australia or New Zealand. In the admission board, they may look at my published papers sections on my CV, and with these kinds of behavior from international journals, I do not know what to do.

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    Two other common explanations could be: (1) the manuscript wasn't aligned with the journal's topic, or (2) the English-language mechanics of the manuscript were weak. Do you think either of those could be at play? – cag51 Feb 11 at 6:33
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    Another explanation could be that they have already published similar papers and so focus on other papers that are “new”... – Solar Mike Feb 11 at 7:43
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    To me this sounds like a standard desk rejection, unfortunately journals are now swarmed with papers and don't have enough reviewers, editors need to make this choice more and more.My last paper for example was desk rejected by 5 journals, before finally going to a reviewer, and there are no sanctions against my country. Ironically, it ended up being accepted in a very good journal, better than at least 3 of the ones who desk rejected it. – Nick S Feb 11 at 16:18
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    We have no idea what field you're in, but browsing through some of the indexes of major journals I can easily find thousands of papers with Iranian authors, from Iranian institutions, published over the past three years. This says nothing about the specific journal you've submitted to, but there seems to be no shortage of major scientific journals publishing papers of Iranian origin in recent years. – J... Feb 11 at 17:56
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    If I were an editor unable to accept papers from Iran then I would make that clear when I replied to reject them - there's really no reason not to be honest about this policy if it exists (But I'm not an editor, so perhaps you shouldn't read too much into this comment) – DavidW Feb 11 at 20:46
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Speaking as an associate editor of a US-based journal that receives many international submissions, I can tell you that:

  1. There are absolutely no guidelines or even informal suggestions that any paper should be handled differently based on the nationality of the authors or their institutions.

  2. I have never heard of anyone making editorial decisions on such a basis or suggesting that they should.

  3. In my own opinion, which I believe is shared by most or all of the other editors, to do #1 or #2 would be highly unethical.

I couldn't even tell you, without going and checking one by one, whether any of the papers I have handled recently had Iranian authors, because it absolutely doesn't matter.

Edit: following up on @Allure's answer below (which links to some older information), it seems there is a very slim and rare legal basis that would hypothetically prevent some editors from handling some manuscripts from Iran and other countries under US sanctions. It definitely does not apply to the case discussed here, and would not be grounds for rejection since practically any major journal will have editors who are not bound by this restriction. The most clear and recent explanation I could find is here. The current rules are the result of a 2004 lawsuit that overturned much more restrictive rules in place back then.

Further edit: It seems that there is a recent instance of misinterpretation of the laws mentioned above, which led to rejection of a manuscript purely on the grounds of one author having an Iranian affiliation. Eventually this was resolved and the rejection decision was reversed. Note that in that case, the authors were specifically informed that the decision was based on US sanctions (albeit misinterpreted), and the decision was not made by or communicated by the journal editors.

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    I'll support this post. I have never heard anyone mention that national origin of the authors makes a difference in their decision-making. And if it did, I would consider it highly unethical. As an editor-in-chief, I see the decisions on a couple of papers every week, and I have seen no evidence that national origin is any factor at all. – Wolfgang Bangerth Feb 11 at 17:43
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    I think it would be even exceptionally unethical to reject a paper based on the existence of sanctions. That would mean to directly support the suppression of knowledge for political reasons. Note the similarity to cooperation of Russian and American scientists in the ISS, largely independent of political factors. – Volker Siegel Feb 12 at 13:37
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    You might say it is unethical to handle papers differently based on the nationality of authors or their institutions, but there is a huge problem sweeping across the (American) nation called BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanction), where people have decided that Israel deserves to be sanctioned for whatever reasons. I won't get into the politics here, but I can tell you that there have been academic boycotts: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Academic_boycott_of_Israel – Yehuda Feb 13 at 16:29
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It's unlikely. See this question from 2013. If you're an employee of the Iranian government then US editors and reviewers can't handle your papers, but even in this case it's overwhelmingly probable that the editorial board will have non-US members who can.

It also seems unlikely this is what's happening in your case, since if they are rejecting your paper based solely on your country, they ought to have said so, just to stop you from submitting more papers to their journal in the future and giving them more work to do.

I think the null hypothesis - that your paper isn't "good enough" for the journal - is the most probable one.

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    "US editors and reviewers can't handle your papers."[Citation needed] – Alexis Feb 11 at 15:09
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    That says they can't review papers from government employees of Iran. I don't see where OP mentions that. – JMac Feb 11 at 17:34
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    I'd like to see a citation for that as well. I've never heard of this prohibition. – Wolfgang Bangerth Feb 11 at 17:44
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    @Alexis amended, the source is the link. – Allure Feb 11 at 19:06
  • @JMac Not when I quoted and commented. – Alexis Feb 12 at 0:16
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I supposed that is because of sanction (we are Iranian). Is this likely to be the case?

It's unlikely. Most good journals receive many submissions, more than they can plausibly even review. Hence, journals employ a pre-filtering process, where the Editor-in-Chief or an Associate Editor screens the paper and then decides whether the paper at least looks like it could have sufficient merit to go through the considerable trouble of peer review. It sounds like in your case the decision of the editor was negative, your paper was desk rejected (rejected without further review).

This is not an uncommon occurrence. At one journal where I am in the editorial board the present desk reject rate is 50% (half of the papers get rejected without review). From the remaining papers a little above a third end up accepted, typically after 2 rounds of revisions. From what I understand these numbers are not uncommon for a well-established mid-ranked journal.

Nationality of the authors does not directly play a role in either of these decisions. However, I would be lying if I did not say that desk rejects are significantly more common for middle or far eastern countries, such as Iran, Pakistan, or China. This is mostly because more authors in these countries submit papers that are blatantly outside of the scope of the journal, very poorly written, very poorly formatted (e.g., figures that are entirely unreadable), which do not follow at all the reporting conventions of the journal, or where there appears to be very close to no novelty in the work.

In conclusion, I understand that it's tempting to blame your rejected manuscript on a systemic injustice, but it's far more likely that your manuscript has some evident issues that made the handling editor wary to waste the reviewer's time (a resource that all journals have preciously little of nowadays). The good news is that often a re-write of the work from ground up can fix the problem (in my experience serious presentation-level issues are the most common reason for desk rejects), but there certainly also is the possibility that your work simply does not contain sufficiently interesting research for a paper.

10

Within the last two years, I have been involved in the revision of several papers (for IEEE & ACES publications) that had affiliations with Iranian universities. The review process (from the point of view of a reviewer) did not differ in any way from any regular paper, as well as the final result.

In that regard, I am unaware of such sanctions implications; however, my experience is limited to only a small number of titles and is not representative by any means.

I would certainly first assess the basics, such as:

  • if the template, author/editorial guide of that specific journal are followed
  • if spelling and grammar are checked
  • if the submitted paper is well aligned with the journal focus, and it is clear from the abstract/conclusion of the paper
  • if the novelty of the paper is clearly identified

Regarding the Ph.D. application:

  • having publications in international journals is good; however, is not mandatory
  • a good statement of intent & thesis can compensate lack of publications to a certain extent
9

This is a very important issue that some researchers in Iran have dealt with. I would like to share here my own experience and knowledge on this.

I remember that last year I was at a conference in Europe with an Iranian colleague of mine, who is a full professor in Iran (University of Tehran). He told me that recently they have a problem with the submission of their papers in high-rank journals, such as some Elsevier journals. He was complaining about the fact that immediately after the submission, let's say after 1 day, they usually receive a letter from the editor declaring that the manuscript will not go through the peer-review process and has been withdrawn.

I became curious about this issue and asked some of my colleagues who are editor-in-chief of high-rank journals and all of them said that there is no protocol for this and none of them has ever considered nationality as a factor to judge a manuscript.

However, recently I noticed something in the publishing agreement that I received, after the acceptance of my manuscript, from an Elsevier journal. The title of one of the articles of this agreement is Author Representations / Ethics and Disclosure / Sanctions, which contains a paragraph that reads

If I and/or any of my co-authors reside in Iran, Cuba, Sudan, Burma, Syria, or Crimea, the Article has been prepared in a personal, academic or research capacity and not as an official representative or otherwise on behalf of the relevant government or institution.

So my understanding is that if we exclude the scientific issues, which may have caused the rejection of the OP's manuscript right after the submission, the reason for rejection could be hidden in this paragraph of the publishing agreement. Since your affiliation (or your co-authors' affiliation) is a university in Iran, the editor wanted to avoid further consequences.

  • I might be missing something, but to me that paragraph sounds like pro-author, and not against. – Martin Argerami Feb 13 at 10:26
  • @MartinArgerami I am not sure if I got what you commented. Which paragraph? – KratosMath Feb 13 at 11:05
  • The only one you quoted, the one in bold. – Martin Argerami Feb 13 at 17:16
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US sanctions against Iran concern specific sectors of economy which does not include education in general. So as long as the paper is not directly related to government, arms / nuclear / petroleum industry, banking, international trade or insurance, and authors are not affiliated to a company which deals in those sectors, sanctions don't justify a rejection.

It doesn't mean that the rejection is not motivated by the political situation indirectly. For instance, the editors may be overly cautious and prefer to reject Iranian papers anyway, they may also have personal reasons and prejudices. Understand however, that those are just plausible theories which are not supported by the answer you have received in any way.

Double check if your paper follows all publication guidelines. If you can't identify a flaw, you can try to ask the editors for more feedback, but there's no guarantee that you will get some. If you decide to write them, just ask if they can point out major flaws in your work. Don't write anything that can be interpreted as an assumption that your paper was rejected unjustly, otherwise your chances of getting honest feedback will drop from slim to none.

4

I think it is unlikely to be the case. Several times a year I receive emails from editors that essentially say "could you please take a quick look at this paper and recommend whether it should be reviewed or not?". I often reply right away, when it is clear that the paper is not a good fit (topic-wise, quality-wise) for the journal. I imagine that when the editors have expertise close to the topic of the paper, they would make the call themselves.

  • This isn't an answer. This would be better as a comment. – Ben Crowell Feb 11 at 23:40
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    The question is explicitly "is this likely to be the case". And that's what I answered. I have edited to make it clearer. – Martin Argerami Feb 11 at 23:52
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I believe that if your paper were blocked because of sanctions, you would simply be told so, as there would be no reason to keep it secret.

The type of letter you received is pretty typical of a journal that employs a two-stage review process. The first stage is to determine if it will be sent out to referees, and the second would be what we think about as a "typical" review.

Many of the high-profile journals that use a two-stage process say so in their authors sections.

If I received a letter like that from a journal that, to my understanding, does not use a two-stage process, my question would be "was my manuscript handled just like any other manuscript.?"

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