seven reasons why journals reject papers

I’ve written about rejections several times, and most of this is scattered throughout the blog, so I thought it might be helpful to amalgamate the most important points together. All in one place.

There are some very common reasons why journal papers get rejected:

(1) They are overcrowded with ideas. They lack focus. Most journal papers have one point to make, they work with one idea, one angle.

(2) They don’t reassure the reader that the research is trustworthy, in other words, that it has been thorough and that it fits within a recognizable tradition of work. Different disciplines require different levels of detail about how the research was conducted, with whom or what, where, how often, how many … The vast majority of journals require something that is methodological and/or about methods.

(3) They don’t fit the journal. It’s very important to check out the specific journal for which you re writing and tailor the paper to fit it. Journals can be thought of as conversations, and each paper as an entry into an ongoing conversation about a particular topic. That’s why it’s important to always see what other papers there have been on the same topic in the journal you are aiming for. If there’s nothing, there may well be a reason, namely, the journal isn’t interested in the topic. It’s also important to check out the way in which other authors in the journal write their abstract, headings, introductions and conclusions because that’s what the referees and readers will be expecting.

(4) There’s no sense that the paper is adding anything new. The writer hasn’t been able to summarise what’s already known about the topic, and what this paper adds. They might just report a piece of research without being able to say why it’s important, and why people need to know about it or what should happen now that they do. In other words, there’s no So What and no Now What.

(5) The writing sounds inexperienced. This usually means that the paper is front loaded with too much literature and lacks a strong conclusion that deals with the So What, Now What questions. But it can be because there is too much time spent on method, or the paper is weighted too heavily to results, or there isn’t enough grounding for the study, or enough analysis.

(6) The paper is poorly structured. There isn’t enough signposting to help the writer find their way through the argument. The headings are meaningless or there’s not enough of them, or there’s too many. The argument doesn’t flow. The order of chunks in the paper doesn’t follow.

(7) It’s just too local, too small, too insignificant. Not every piece of research can become a paper, although most can. However, sometimes people slice the research too thin, don’t do enough analysis, don’t make enough connections with other research, or are just too theory-light for the reviewers to judge the piece worthy of publication.

It’s possible NOT to make these basic mistakes. Making sure that you avoid these things leaves the referees able to engage with the actual ideas and the argument, which is after all, why you are writing…

(Is this where I put a shameless plug for our journal writing book? Gulp.)

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About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in journal, premature publication, publishing, refereeing, rejection, writing, writing research and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

25 Responses to seven reasons why journals reject papers

  1. Sian White says:

    Thank you so much for this post – as I’m currently re-drafting what is soon to be my first journal submission, this advice is invaluable to me.

    I shall take heed!

  2. Lizzy Walton says:

    Very useful and apt – received 2 rejections of papers I submitted today! Can’t face the redrafts today but I when I do I will use your tips – thank you

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  4. Good list. I’d add:
    8. The author hasn’t bothered to follow the style guide
    9. The author didn’t engage constructively with the peer review process
    10. The paper’s good, just not good enough (or not as good as competing submissions)

  5. Very good list, which as an editor I would strongly agree with. See this link for some tips on how to deal with rejection

  6. Reblogged this on JHND NOTES: The Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics Editor's Blog and commented:
    Some interesting thoughts in why papers get rejected, from the University of Nottingham, School of Education

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  8. Tseen Khoo says:

    Great, succinct list, Pat! The one I find hardest to negotiate / discuss with researchers is #7 – the best thing is talking about how they can plan better for their next project or cache of data / sample, but there’s not much to be done about work that can’t become an academic publication (esp these days).

  9. The Nous Bros. says:

    V. helpful. But also important to keep in mind that in the humanities and the social sciences, at least, it is unusual for top-tier journals, especially, to publish anything that is genuinely original or game-changing. That is, #1 and #2 on your list go very deep. The ideal is: one technically clever (relative to the genre in question), ultimately reassuring idea per paper. In this respect, #7 is often considered a virtue. For better or for worse, the ideal paper for a top-tier journal is a virtuoso reproduction of existing parameters of debate. It is important to know this, so that one can publish in said venues if one chooses to do so, but not feel bad about it if one doesn’t.

  10. How does everything that has just been said square with these words by Helen Sword:

    “Academic writers often assume that they have to produce a
    particular style of prose because peer-reviewers and editors will accept nothing else.
    But many journal editors want to push against disciplinary boundaries and reach out
    to a wider audience; they actively welcome articles written ‘in an accessible, but
    rigorous, style that is likely to engage those without a specialist interest in the topic
    being discussed’ (Studies in Higher Education submission guidelines). The status quo
    will begin to shift only when more and more academics dare to write differently,
    replacing impersonal research reports with real-life stories about students, teachers
    and researchers (human beings!) engaged in the challenging, frustrating, exhilarating
    work of higher education.” (‘Writing higher education differently: a manifesto on style’, 2009, Studies in Higher Education, 34 (3)

    Who is allowed to push against those disciplinary boundaries? Which disciplines allow such creative subversion? And why? The following book advocates a similar manifesto, but if journals are going to reject this academic flair, what’s the point?

    • pat thomson says:

      You have to pick the journal that will allow experimentation. There are some. It’s also different for people who are experienced academics Im afraid. The object for doc researchers and ECRs is to get published surely. I think it’s rather problematic if experienced academics expect the most vulnerable researchers to do the trail blazing.

      • Yes, like Angelaki (, perhaps. But will scientists read it, and social scientists? If academics are required to publish in high impact journals, and these high impact journals are imposing conventions which arguably rein in creative, boundary-challenging thoughts, then what incentive is there to push the boundaries that Helen Sword is inviting us to push? It seems to me that only when you reach academic diva status can you push the limits. Yet unless students and academics transgress in the process of knowledge transformation, they can’t think and propose anything new.

  11. pat thomson says:

    It’s important not to conflate style with Everything. There is very little in the seven points Ive listed that relates to Swords notions of style. It would be possible to meet my seven points both stylishly and in the more usual academic prose. Stylishness is all not be same as boundary challenging thoughts and neither stylishness nor boundary challenging is necessarily the same as creativity.

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  14. Phillip Lord says:

    8. The author hasn’t been able to follow to obscure, incomprehensive and frankly pointless style guidelines that made sense last century.
    9. The author is not known in the community that she or he is publishing.
    10. The content is clearly, thoughtful, methodologically well motivated, but is not going to encourage a good press release.
    11. The author has not managed to compress their figures so that if fits a page limit for a paper that most people are going to read on screen.
    12. Paper describes negative data, which might potentially save time, effort or lives. But, hey, it’s negative, so who cares right?

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  20. Mick says:

    Thanks for the great tips. However, much as I’d like to check out that journal writing book, it’s far too expensive.

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