editing, nursing, nursing science, peer review, scientific writing, clinical trials



  1. Pickler, Rita H.

Article Content

In 2020, the editorial team at Nursing Research rejected 58% of submissions to the journal before review. We call these desk rejections, and they are not a cause for celebration. In fact, desk rejections cause dismay, certainly in authors, but also in editors. Editors, of course, are also authors; we know how long it takes to write a research paper, an important component of research work. However, these days, desk rejection is almost a standard practice in publishing.


Journal editors desk reject papers for several reasons. First, editors have to consider the journal's reviewers. Reviewers' time and expertise are precious commodities. Editors do not want to ask reviewers to spend time on papers that cannot be published in the journal. Moreover, reviewers typically possess expertise congruent with content that is the general focus of most papers published in the journal; papers that are "out of scope" of the journal's mission are likely out of reviewers' scope of expertise. For example, Nursing Research publishes about 60 papers a year, yet we receive about 500 submissions yearly. Using desk rejection allows us to send to reviewers only those papers that have a possible chance of being accepted. If we did not do this, we would have many more reviewers refusing reviewer requests, thus diminishing the quality of the journal.


What is important here is for authors to think about what may result in a manuscript being desk rejected. In fact, at Nursing Research, a major reason for desk rejection is that the paper's topic is out of scope. This generally means the topic (or methods) are not congruent with the journal's stated mission. For example, among other topics, Nursing Research does not publish papers about nursing education, except where that education is about scientific training. We clearly state in our author guidelines that we do not publish papers about nursing education, and yet 4% of desk rejected papers in 2020 were studies of nursing education. The take-home message here is that authors should carefully read the author guidelines. Many, if not most, papers can find a journal home. However, it is the authors' responsibility to select journals that are a good fit for their work. If an author is in doubt about the "fit" of a paper with the journal's mission, a query to the editor may help. A caveat here is that not all journal editors will respond to queries (this is usually stated in the author guidelines). At Nursing Research, we will advise potential authors on fit only if the query includes a structured abstract. Authors need to keep in mind that an editor's statement of fit is not a guarantee that a paper will be accepted for publication or even that the paper will not be desk rejected.


Another major reason manuscript submissions are desk rejected is because they are poorly written. Poor writing can encompass many things, including poor language and grammar use as well as inappropriate formatting. We understand that not all authors are native English language writers or that not all writers possess good writing skills. We also know that formatting can be challenging; Nursing Research follows the American Psychological Association Seventh Edition formatting. Papers with minimal errors in language and format can be managed, especially if the paper is scientifically sound. However, in some cases, errors of language and form are so significant that editors cannot discern the quality of the actual research. To avoid having a paper rejected for language and format, authors may want to consider having the final work edited. Occasionally, a co-author or colleague can edit a paper adequately for language and format. If this is not the case, authors may consider obtaining professional editorial services, including English language editing, before submitting the paper.


A third major reason for desk rejections is scientific quality. Papers that are poorly designed, limited in scope, or of limited significance will be desk rejected. On occasion, desk rejections for scientific reasons may seem subjective. However, editors are also typically scientists. Moreover, they are knowledgeable about the quality and type of science that journal reviewers expect and are likely to review favorably or in a way that results in an improved paper. Thus, the scientific premise of the submitted paper must be strong (i.e., builds on existing research) and expands knowledge about the topic.


One particular concern that will always result in a desk rejection is the failure of the research team to register a clinical trial. Trial registration requirements have evolved over the last 20 years. The key point is that journals must comply with trial registration requirements at the time a study was conducted. Any study conducted since 2017 that includes an intervention must be registered regardless of study funding, sample size, or other design details. There are no exceptions. At Nursing Research, we check trial registration for every paper that includes an intervention. If we cannot find the registration on or on other trial registries (including international ones) and we are otherwise interested in the paper, we will ask the author for an explanation. Occasionally authors have simply forgotten to provide this information either in the electronic submission forms or in the cover letter. However, usually, the trial is not registered, in which case, the paper is rejected without review. Trial registration is clearly part of study design; researchers are reminded that this important aspect of their work needs to be addressed before study procedures are started.


I have had my own papers desk rejected. Editors do not, as a rule, provide a reason for a desk rejection, because authors are generally not allowed to appeal desk rejections. As I reflect on my own desk rejection experiences, I am certain the disappointment of desk rejection was of my own doing. Like all authors, I thought about the rejection and why it might have happened. In all cases, I think I chose the wrong journal; that is, my paper was not a good fit for the journal from which it was rejected. I am certain of this because, in all cases, the desk rejected papers were subsequently published in journals of similar quality and reputation. The difference is that the publishing journals' repertoire of papers was more congruent with my paper than those journals from whom I received a desk rejection. I realize, in hindsight of course, that I could have saved myself some time and frustration by being more careful about journal selection. I also realize, however, that this "rejection" of my work by a journal is not a personal indictment nor, I hope, a commentary about my scientific work.


As editor, my primary job is to find, edit, curate, and publish scientific papers. For almost 60 years, Nursing Research's mission has been to report scientific research findings that advance understanding of all aspects of health. Many topics and methods fall within the journal's scope. We hope that potential authors will continue to send us well-designed and carefully written papers that fall within the scope of our mission. We know that scientists want their work published; we certainly want to publish your science. Hopefully, the suggestions made here will help you to reduce your risk of desk rejections and thus facilitate scientific advancement.