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I recently had a paper desk-rejected (i.e., by the editor without review). I was disappointed sure, but more annoyed because no reason was given at all (verbatim email with redactions):

I am sorry to tell you that we will not be able to publish your paper titled "TITLE." JOURNAL receives more manuscripts than we have space to publish, and we have to make choices among some interesting papers.
I realize this is disappointing news. I hope this rapid decision will at least allow you to submit your paper elsewhere without delay, and that you will not be discouraged from submitting your future research papers to JOURNAL.

Is this a reasonable desk-rejection email? Is it reasonable to reply asking for specific rejection reason(s)?

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Yes I think it's reasonable (despite being an impersonal template email). Desk rejection usually implies the paper is not up to the standards of the journal for whatever reason. Further explanation isn't really necessary. And, realistically, it might not be helpful. It is nice when editors provide feedback but I don't generally expect it.

But yes, you are free to ask for more specifics. No-one will be offended, you might not get a satisfying answer though.

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  • Thanks. Good to know it's not so unusual. Oct 14, 2023 at 4:46
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    Another frequent reason for a desk rejection is that a paper may not be on-topic for a journal, or too broad, or too narrow in scope. Oct 14, 2023 at 5:53
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    I would read the explanation by the editor to mean exactly what it says. They get way more paper submissions than they can publish and OPs paper didn't look outstanding to the editor. If they were to do a peer review it may end up a barely accept, a border line case or a flat rejection but with the amount of submissions they have it doesn't seem worth the work and effort of a peer review.
    – quarague
    Oct 14, 2023 at 6:44

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