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Out of curiosity, I would like to get a feeling of what is the attitude in general for a present-day editor of a prestigious (not an objective modifier, of course) journal to deal with a new submission before sending it out for review.

I notice that some journals of high impact would state it as an editorial policy that an editor may desk-reject (so to speak) a submission without finding a reviewer if the submission is so-and-so. Then I think that, if I am an editor, I definitely do not want to waste any reviewing resources; hence I become a pre-reviewer in this sense. Does this line of thinking apply to most editors? If this is the case, then a submission passing over an editor's inspection means at least that the editor feels that the submission is potentially publishable; but to what extent this implication is true?

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    This differs enormously from journal to journal. At the high impact journals for which I serve as an editor, we desk reject the majority of submissions. Other journals may send almost everything out for review. – Corvus Nov 7 '15 at 8:24
  • @Corvus Thank you; that reminds me of narrowing down the scope. :) It is my original intention to understand it for high-impact journals in general. – Megadeth Nov 7 '15 at 8:26
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    I fail to understand what your actual question is. Even with low-level journals, editors have to view the manuscript at least marginally before sending it to review, at least to select the reviewers. If they come to the conclusion that the submission is not even potentially publishable or reviewable, they would be stupid not to desk-reject it. – Wrzlprmft Nov 7 '15 at 8:31
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    Also, your question’s title is broken. – Wrzlprmft Nov 7 '15 at 8:32
  • @Wrzlprmft editors have to view the manuscript at least marginally before sending it to review, I think the question is "to what extent this implication is true?" for prestigious journals. – scaaahu Nov 7 '15 at 9:55
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When you are running a journal, no matter how where it sits in the prestige rankings, all sorts of things wash up in the submission box. One might think of these as roughly falling into four categories:

  • Clearly plausible and on-topic papers
  • Papers whose focus or quality is dubious, but are still worth sending to review
  • Papers that are clearly off-topic
  • Papers that are clearly below the journal's quality threshold

Until you actually see such a stream, you might not realize just how bizarre the material can be that shows up in the third and fourth categories. I'm talking about likely-schizophrenic ramblings where the text changes color and font multiple times per paragraph, blatant plagiarism, or papers that don't even bother to connect themselves to the research field of the journal. Heck, even as a graduate student I was once sent a videotape by a man who had decorated his trash can to look like a robot and explained in great length how the "robot" can would react to All in the Family episodes so that it could save humanity by terraforming the Sahara desert.

In a highly interconnected world with people working at all sorts of levels of quality, a lot of this type of junk shows up. It's entirely appropriate for an editor to reject category #3 and #4 material, so as not to waste everybody's time. I really don't want to ask people to review plagiarized or insane material. I also don't want to waste time asking them to review things that are probably science of some sort, but still absolutely certain to be rejected. It is thus the case that nearly every editor will be asked and find it justified to perform some degree of pre-evaluation and desk rejection.

Where it becomes difficult, however, is that different editors and different journals have different standards for determining where to draw the line. When authors disagree with the journal, it can get rancorous, especially for the "glamour" journals that can be so high value for authors to publish in. Thus, we hear primarily about the mistakes, the borderline cases, and the places where politics and prejudice hurt the scientific process.

The key questions are this:

  1. What percentage of the time is the system going wrong?
  2. What can be done to improve it?

I'm almost certain that #1 is a pretty small percentage, simply because there's a lot of detritus that nobody is likely to object to desk rejection on. Despite that, the number may well be too high: study of this topic would be both useful and likely very difficult, given the subjective nature of the judgements. There clearly are places where the system goes wrong, and reducing that fraction will likely be good for all of us.

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  • Your answer is off-topic. Many researchers make great science matching the journal scope and rarely go beyond the editorial barrier. High impact journals have to be extremely selective, that's what make them valuable. The true question is how this selection is done. – Ratbert Nov 7 '15 at 14:54
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Yes, because the pool of suitable and reliable reviewers is very limited. It's necessary to make sure that one doesn't burn out the good reviewers on evidently poorly reasoned or unclear articles.

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Most journals exercise editorial prior-to-review rejections based on, allegedly, low urgency, significance and novelty.

While an editorial rejection due to a poorly written discussion can be clear, rejections due to the other above enumerated reasons constitute a contradictory practice since in this case a fairly small group of people (editors) decide which research topics/authors/institutions/viewpoints get represented in the high-impact journals and which do not.

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  • This seems more of a complaint about rejection practices than an actual answer. – Tobias Kildetoft Nov 9 '15 at 8:17

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