A guest blog by Rebecca Tadokera of ScieHealth Communications.

Rejection of a manuscript is always disheartening, no matter how plausible the reasons are. While this should not be the case, having your paper rejected always feels personal! Perhaps because many a scientist regards their work as a calling. Even after years of research, most senior academics find manuscript rejection hard to stomach. Some researchers have even confessed to hiding their reactions from colleagues or junior lab members by ignoring the editor’s email or waiting until they are in a private place to open the email!

The reality is that most manuscripts get rejected a few times before they are finally accepted. Everyone will get a rejection at some point. However, to minimise the chances of that happening, it is important to understand the most frequent reasons why manuscripts get rejected and how to avoid these common pitfalls. This article summarises the seven most common reasons for manuscript rejection.

Rejection: Cartoon with long list of journals that rejected an article
Cartoon developed by Daniel Kotz and Jochen Kals for Scientific Writing Tips

Reason 1. Failure to pass technical screening

Before a manuscript goes through to the editor-in-chief, it must undergo technical screening. Editors reject nearly 70% of manuscripts at this preliminary stage. Reasons for the manuscript’s rejection include poor presentation, such as incomplete or missing titles and incomplete lists of authors. Similarly, minor errors, such as incorrect or unclear labelling of tables and figures, and poor language, which make it difficult to read the paper, will lead to rejection. The inability to conform to the journal’s author guidelines will undoubtedly result in an imminent desk rejection.

Reason 2. Out-of-scope manuscript

Journals will often publish guidelines on the scope of work they accept on their websites. If a paper does not fall within the journal’s scope, it will be rejected. Up to 30% of articles are rejected outright for falling outside the scope of the journal. For example, certain biomedical journals will not publish in vitro work that does not have a clinical component. Similarly, a social science journal will under no circumstance publish a clinical manuscript. It is, therefore, essential to make sure that the work fits the remit of the specific journal before submitting it. You can read more about how to select an appropriate journal here.

Reason 3. Rejection due to lack of novelty

Journal articles are usually published on the premise that they add to the existing body of knowledge. While some journals may publish a pure methodology paper, a manuscript lacking originality and not significantly adding new information to the current literature is most likely to get rejected. There is no justification for publishing studies that only add incremental value from previous work when other new and exciting studies are available.

Reason 4. Rejection due to methodological flaws

Significant flaws in the design of a study, such as insufficient sample size, lack of a control group, or non-conformity, such as lack of reproducibility of the results, will make the results of a study questionable. Questionable statistical approaches will invalidate the analysis, leading to the rejection of the manuscript. Flawed methodology and poor study design account for over 70% of outright manuscript rejections.

Reason 5. Poor language, writing and spelling issues

While it is understood that not everyone is a first-language English speaker, there is no excuse for sloppiness in the presentation of work. Most journals offer editorial assistance for non-native English speakers who may require it. It is also good practice to share your work with colleagues and co-authors to check for avoidable mistakes before submitting it for journal review.

Reason 6. Incomplete article

Editors know that sometimes authors will try to divide the findings of a manuscript to publish more papers, a phenomenon called “salami slicing.” In some cases, it can be evident that the authors have divided up a larger study to produce as many papers as possible. Similarly, an article that ignores other essential studies in the field, or has an incomplete literature review, has little chance of being accepted for publication.

Reason 7. Rejection due to flawed arguments and conclusions

When presenting arguments in a paper, these should be logical, valid and in line with accepted conventions in the field. The data presented should uphold and support the conclusions of the paper. Over-reading, illogical arguments or misinterpretation of research findings will result in the manuscript being rejected.

Avoid rejection next time

So, the next time you submit an article for publication, watch out for these common pitfalls. Check that you have ticked all the above boxes! This way, you save yourself and the journal editor’s time and spare yourself the heartache that comes with every rejection.