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.)