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Several times now I've had desk rejections from journals in pure mathematics that are variations on the theme of 'we have a large backlog of very good articles, so unfortunately we won't even be sending your paper to a referee even though we might ordinarily do so'. I suspect this is just euphemism for 'we aren't interested in your paper/your paper is not good enough/go away', as claiming a large backlog seems to me to be more objectively defendable than making an editorial decision (ie 'not significant enough') and standing by it on its own terms. Alternatively, it may be phrased this way to soften the blow in claiming to not make an explicit judgement call on paper quality.

Is this common practice among editors and/or journals? I haven't in my admittedly limited experience heard similar wording in rejections from, say, experimental sciences journals. More controversially, am I correct in my reading, that it is just euphemism? (If so, I do not appreciate it, in the interest of academic honesty over lawyer-approved weasel words.)

Ideally answers would come from people who are editors and/or those with extensive experience in publishing. A bonus would be answers that can detail whether this sort of thing is on the rise, coming from people who have decades of experience.

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    Maybe answers should also discuss what kinds of factors usually warrant desk rejection. My impression was that desk rejections occur indeed upon very objectively defendable (and accordingly easily verifiable) issues with a manuscript, such as violating the minimum or maximum page count, being obviously off-topic, not being a paper at all (e.g. a few pages only comprising of graphics, ...). While editors might evaluate significance of findings, this sounds more like something that the actual referees would look into first, to reduce the workload for editors and because significance is ... – O. R. Mapper Nov 12 '15 at 22:57
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    Great question. Euphemisms in general are a despicable thing, and way overused in Anglo-Saxon culture. – Dan Romik Nov 13 '15 at 0:26
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    @O.R.Mapper -- there's a time investment involved in finding reviewers and sending something out to them. There's also a major time investment involved in reviewing a paper. I see nothing wrong in rejecting a paper without review if I can see in ten minutes that that paper isn't going to go anywhere. – Wolfgang Bangerth Nov 13 '15 at 3:27
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    @DavidRoberts: "the paper has been described by a referee as being very good". If the paper actually is very good, then the simpler explanation in your case surely is that the editor is telling the truth, not that the editor is both wrong about the quality of the paper and also lying/euphemising about the reason for rejection? – Steve Jessop Nov 13 '15 at 11:13
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    "Too long a backlog" is always to some extent an excuse. If you proved the Riemann Hypothesis, any journal would move heaven and earth to accept your paper, no matter what the backlog is. At the other end, as long as your paper is in scope, somewhat interesting and not wrong, a journal needing papers will be happy to publish it. Editors adjust their standards every month based on what their backlog is, so what the editor is telling you is that, given the current state of the backlog and the competing papers in the pipeline, they don't think it's worth publishing for them. – Alexander Woo Nov 14 '15 at 0:54
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This is a real phenomenon, which I've had to deal with in practice as an editor. It's by no means universal, and it's probably a cop-out to some extent, but in at least some cases it genuinely indicates that standards are temporarily higher than normal while the journal deals with a backlog.

My impression is that it is caused by several factors:

  1. A publisher that targets a certain number of pages per year and will not substantially exceed this target (on the grounds that it will cost more without raising subscription revenue correspondingly), regardless of how many papers the editors accept. If there are too many accepted papers, then they will be published gradually over time.

  2. A decentralized editorial board in which individual editors recommend papers for acceptance without having to justify their decisions in terms of the publication rate of the journal.

  3. A sufficiently large backlog that authors start to get upset about how many years they have to wait to see their paper in print.

All of these factors can contribute, but they are not all necessary. For example, Journal of the AMS has had backlog issues in the past, despite having an editorial board that makes decisions jointly.

Typically what happens is that the publisher or the editor in chief starts to get worried about the high backlog (since it can hurt the journal's reputation) and pressures the other editors to accept fewer papers until the backlog starts to decrease. During this period, it can be tricky to coordinate with referees on the new standards, so editors typically desk reject papers they aren't excited about, even if those papers might plausibly have been accepted normally.

Each year the AMS publishes backlog estimates for mathematics journals (here is the 2015 version). If you see a particularly high backlog listed there, then the stated reasons are probably real. If you don't, then the editor might be trying to soften the blow of rejection, or it's possible that the AMS's backlog estimate is not right.

It's worth noting that a small backlog is good, since it evens out the random fluctuations in the acceptance rate and keeps the publisher happy. It's only a problem to the extent that it starts to upset the authors, and it has been less of a problem in recent decades (since the AMS started publicizing the backlogs).

I haven't in my admittedly limited experience heard similar wording in rejections from, say, experimental sciences journals.

Yes, this phenomenon does not seem to exist in most other fields. In mathematics, formal publication is not the primary mode of communication (rather, it's for permanent archiving), so nobody is too horrified by backlogs, and this lets things get out of hand occasionally. In the experimental sciences, authors demand rapid publication, so there is no concept of accepting more papers than you have space to publish and developing a serious backlog.

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  • A small backlog also allows the editor to pick and choose what will be published in the next issue, in case you want to strike a balance between an issue's articles in some way. – Stephan Kolassa Nov 13 '15 at 7:15
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    "A sufficiently large backlog that authors start to get upset about how many years they have to wait to see their paper in print." -- I strongly support electronic-only journals for this very reason. If people need paper copies for archiving, if they want paper copies for themselves, there are ways to do this, without the journal worrying about thickness of volumes and subsequent costs. – David Roberts Nov 13 '15 at 7:22
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    @DavidRoberts That solves exactly nothing. The journals are not going to increase the volume of published papers. They have gone up by some percentage during the creation of the backlog, but that's it. You can argue that you'd like to see your paper get a DOI and stuff sooner; there are other solutions to this (for instance, e-first). – yo' Nov 13 '15 at 9:41
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    @yo' why couldn't an electronic journal set a quality bar and publish everything above it, regardless how many accepted papers that represents? – Benoît Kloeckner Nov 13 '15 at 23:01
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    @yo' This is not the place for such a long discussion, but I cannot help stressing that not all journal use subscriptions for funding. Never heard of Open Access? – Benoît Kloeckner Nov 15 '15 at 19:02
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Although I've not been "an editor", I've been involved-enough with refereeing in "pure math" for almost 40 years now that I can observe some patterns:

First, the last several decades were very productive in the sense that many, many people got PhD's in math from pretty darn good places, and were focused on research. Second, the advent of TeX + internet (as opposed to paper mail) has effectively decreased the "friction" of submission so that the volume of submissions is insanely higher than 30 years ago. Maybe 100 times that rate? Meanwhile, the number of reasonably-substantive-status mathematics journals has not at all increased, and the refereeing system (pro bono, in people's spare time) has not changed. I hesitate to suggest that referees should be paid (jeez, for one thing, this starts to create conflicts of interest worse than those already present...), but the "old" system cannot cope with the new volume.

Thus, desk rejections will be more frequent, and more aggressive. That is, in particular, editors will not want to annoy/burden their "stable" of expert referees with a higher volume of papers... (One could hope that the pool of expert referees would grow proportionately to the number of TeX'd-up manuscripts, but this seems not to be so.)

Yes, I'd be willing to believe that the rate of inaccurate desk-rejections has gone up... not through malice or prejudice, but exigency.

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  • I guess your "first" and "second" are both about reasons for the increase in number of submissions, but it doesn't read like this because of your sentence breaking. Also, I guess the development of academia in many countries like China accounts for a lot more submissions. – Kimball Nov 13 '15 at 1:16
  • @Kimball - what sentence broke? If you see something needing editing, it would be constructive to suggest a solution -- in a comment, if you're unsure, or by clicking on the "Edit" link. – aparente001 Nov 13 '15 at 5:34
  • I can accept that there has been a large increase in submissions but I find a hundred-fold increase very hard to believe. Do you have any data to back that up? – David Richerby Nov 13 '15 at 9:28
  • If there are more people submitting, there should be a proportionally larger pool to draw referees and even (associate) editors from. – gerrit Nov 13 '15 at 10:53
  • @gerrit, if it were just about filtering for quality, that is plausible (although the shape of the demographic might mean that there are way more novices than experts, etc.) However, regarding status, it would "break the system" if suddenly many more people could "acquire status": journals would lose their rep if they quadrupled their publication volume... – paul garrett Nov 13 '15 at 13:26
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One of the factors that make mathematics different from, say, experimental sciences, is that the expectations on referees is an order of magnitude higher. Seriously refereeing a medium-length paper is a full week of work, and often takes up to a year since the referee has to find 40 hours (or even more for a longer or more difficult paper) outside of all their regular duties.

There is exactly one journal currently on my refereeing blacklist, and this is a journal that rejected a paper over my fairly strong recommendation for the paper to be accepted. It might be bad for a paper to be desk rejected, but it is even worse for the paper to go out for refereeing, be recommended for acceptance, and then have the paper rejected because of lack of space or length of backlog, wasting six months to a year or more for the author and wasting a week of work for the referee.

If an editor believes the referee is unlikely to be able to convince them to accept the paper, they should not send it out for refereeing.

Some journals have now explicitly adopted a process where the editor(s) consult with a first referee to get a quick opinion on whether the paper should be fully refereed. Even journals that don't adopt such a process formally may have editors who informally consult with experts before deciding whether or not to desk reject a paper. In many cases, informal consultation with someone the editor knows personally is more accurate since they can more accurately convey the journal's standards and go back and forth about the merits of the results claimed in the paper.

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  • "for the paper to go out for refereeing, be recommended for acceptance, and then have the paper rejected because of lack of space or length of backlog, wasting six months to a year or more for the author and wasting a week of work for the referee." <-- in my case 17 months... – David Roberts Nov 13 '15 at 7:21
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I have not ever heard the particular reason for rejecting a paper you cite, despite having been an editor for two of the top journals in our field (computational math) for several years. I believe it's a cop out.

That said, there is nothing wrong for an editor to reject papers without sending them out for review. As an editor, you can often see that a paper doesn't have the required level; or that it is outside scope of simply covers such a small and non-interesting niche that it's not of interest to the readers. If you sent this out to 3 people for review, you'd burn out your referees. It's better for everyone to come to a decision quickly and send it back to the author without review. I am honest in such cases, however, about my reasons to do so.

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    Dishonesty in this case actually hurts the author. Any rejected paper that I've had has helped me immensely to go further, because a proper rejection generally comes with constructive feedback that I can use. Mentioning any other reason for rejecting a paper than the real one does not help at all and will only waste more of the author's time. – thkala Nov 13 '15 at 19:57

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