How to Avoid a Desk Rejection

Steven French

We appreciate that desk rejections can be a contentious topic but in our experience, idealized expectations that all submissions should be refereed soon crumble under the practicalities of actually finding people willing to read and offer comments, detailed or otherwise (not to mention responding to the referee who declaims, ‘You sent me this?!’). The BJPS receives on average twelve new submissions per week, which together with the re-(and re-re-) submitted work means we’re typically dealing with sixteen to eighteen papers at our weekly editorial meetings. Our two criteria for determining whether to forward a submission to one of our Associate Editors, who will then assign referees, are: First, does the paper fall under the remit of the journal (the clue is in the title!)? Second, does it ‘advance the debate’ (as we say on our webpage)?

The first rules out some easy cases: the utterly inappropriate (a poem on perpetual motion anyone?!), or those that are all science but no philosophy, or all history but no philosophy, or, at the other end of this particular spectrum, all philosophy but no science… Of course, some of those cases are not so easy and there is a complete spectrum with many nuances. As well as general philosophy of science, we publish papers on the foundations of various fields, and drawing a line between something that should be published with us or with Foundations of Physics, say, can be tricky. We’re also keen to publish work that is informed by the history or practice of science, but we tend to balk at pieces that are 99% case study, with just a paragraph or two of philosophical conclusion at the end. Likewise, we want to encourage more productive engagement between philosophy of science and other areas of philosophy more generally, but again we don’t think we’re the appropriate forum for extensive metaphysical analyses that only minimally engage with modern (or even pre-modern!) science, especially when there are so many other venues for that sort of thing.

In some of these not-so-easy cases, we’ll deploy the second criterion: we’ll certainly send a case study-heavy piece out for review if we think it might help advance a particular debate within the field. But, equally, we might reject something that fits the remit, gets the balance between case study/history/science/general philosophy right, but then makes only a minor point or critical amendment. Similarly, we’ll knock something back even if it makes a ‘big’ or provocative claim if that claim is clearly not backed up by good arguments, including relevant scientific practice or examples. 

Of course we recognise that where we draw these various lines may be debatable and that our decisions can be contested. But it should be noted that, first of all, one of the advantages of co-editorship is that there’s always a second pair of eyes involved (sometimes a third, with Beth!), and although we tend to agree in the majority of cases, we discuss in some detail those where we do not. It is also worth noting that our practice is to complete our weekly decision spreadsheets separately, with Beth merging them prior to our editorial meeting, when we go through the final spreadsheet and agree on each individual case (and discuss those where we may have reached different opinions) until we reach a consensus.  Second, in those cases where we really do feel the submission sits on the border between desk rejection and being sent out to referees, we’ll ask the relevant Associate Editor for their informed opinion. And finally, the silver lining here is a quick decision, rather than waiting four weeks or more (typically more if we have to run through five or six referees before we find someone willing to read the piece).

And although we acknowledge that such desk rejections come without (typically) helpful and constructive referees’ comments, we do not see the journal as some kind of ‘finishing school’ for papers. To put it rather bluntly: if your submission is going to have the best chance of being accepted by us, it should already have been read, reviewed, and critiqued by peers, colleagues, or even just friends, and, if possible, presented at some forum or other, even if only an informal work-in-progress seminar.

So, how can you avoid a desk rejection?

The first rule of thumb is: get to know the journal you’re submitting to. Granted, most authors who have heard of us won’t assume that the BJPS is the best forum for a careful analysis of the thermal properties of different types of coal (the topic of a recent submission). But still, click on our webpage, or open up a hard copy, and take a look at the sorts of papers we publish.

Second, get the balance right. If you’re drawing on a case study or an episode in the history of science, make sure it’s not case-study heavy (if so, you may want to consider one of the Studies journals instead). Likewise, if you’re deploying some heavy guns from metaphysics or epistemology, or turning scientific weaponry on some poor, benighted view in philosophy, be careful to keep the philosophy of science in focus (else it might be better off going to one of the ‘mainstream’ philosophy journals).

Third, engage with the relevant literature—not least to make sure that someone else hasn’t already published your brilliant idea! But again, don’t make it too ‘exposition heavy’; we’re not interested in survey articles that present some minor criticism of recent work right at the very end. Get the balance right: show how your approach can be situated within, but advances on, the current debate. And if you want to launch a whole new debate—excellent! But indicate why that is necessary, either by showing what is wrong or inadequate with what’s currently going on, or by bringing into the light issues that lie beyond the accepted pale.

Fourth and relatedly, advance the debate! We’re really not that interested in minor tweaks or criticisms of this or that extant position, or in how some account might be extended a little further in some area or other. What we want are papers that offer new approaches and perspectives, that help us see old issues in a new light, that present us with new issues to consider, or that undermine, critique, or generally raise major problems for extant views and positions. Of course, as the song says, you can’t always get what you want, but our aim is to make the BJPS the ‘go to’ journal for exciting (but also well argued) new work in the field and we’re keen to encourage authors to be ambitious with their submissions.

Fifth and finally, follow Woody Guthrie’s advice, suitably amended: ‘Play and sing good’.