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It seems like the review process rigor does not vary much at reputable journals. Is a low acceptance rate therefore due to lots of desk rejects?

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    I think reviewing is often pretty random (at least in math). But are you asking about rate of desk rejection versus rejection after review? Or just if the desk rejection rate is high?
    – Kimball
    Commented Jul 22, 2021 at 23:26

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My anecdotal impression is that while both phases are important and certainly the top journals have higher rates of desk rejections before review, they also tend to have less editorial leeway for revisions after peer review.

The rigor of reviews is the same, which makes sense: ultimately, the actual people doing the reviews are coming from the same pool of "other scientists in the field". They aren't reviewing more or less sloppily according to the journal's stature or "impact factor": they're offering their professional opinions about the work in front of them.

However, the higher end journals are looking for glowing peer reviews in the first round; if the reviews aren't glowing (both in terms of scientific rigor and perceived "impact"), they're likely to either reject the paper outright, or more recently as journals have adopted a tiered system, recommend continuing the peer review process at a lower-tier journal by that publisher (for example, Scientific Reports for Nature).

I publish in neuroscience and medical journals; experiences may vary in other fields.

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It is similar to job applications. While processes are similar everywhere, getting a job obviously is not. More people will be 'desk rejected' for sure, but even those candidates getting the interview will have a harder time.

Scientists writing the review are conscious about the venue. If asked to review for a top journal, established scientists know the quality of the result required and communicate appropriately whether such quality is found in the submission. The more reputable the journal the more competitive everything becomes and competition introduces randomness and focus on superficial things. Editors of weaker journals need to decide, which work to accept, while editors of strong journals, once the subpar submissions are gone, need to decide what to reject. So reputable reviews receive more critical reviews and tolerate less criticism in such reviews.

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  • It is similar to job applications. - If you're talking about proportions of "desk rejections", I don't think this is true at all, at least in my experience in pure math. Also, I'm not sure how your second paragraph answers the question.
    – Kimball
    Commented Jul 25, 2021 at 13:29
  • Thank you for you help, improving my answer. You are correct that I indeed do not answer the question in the title but the question in the description, whether low acceptance rate is due to lots of desk rejects. The second paragraph details how the disputable assumption that review process rigor does not vary much at reputable journals does not imply the conclusion that only desk rejects matter. Commented Jul 26, 2021 at 14:48

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