Some (high impact) journals do this more than others, but any journal editor can decide that a particular manuscript should not be reviewed. Typical reasons for the non-review include:
- The (high impact) journal gets so many submissions that it isn't possible to review them all, even some that are actually quite excellent papers.
- The manuscript is really bad.
- The manuscript is not bad at all but some editors lack good judgment and/or are not objective.
- The manuscript is inappropriate for the general focus area of a journal or a thematic collection within a journal.
I was recently thinking about an incident involving an author who was extraordinarily irate that his manuscript was not reviewed. The editors had decided not to send the manuscript for review primarily because the manuscript was quite far outside the focus area of the journal to which it was submitted. An additional consideration was that the manuscript was a long, rambling, poorly written document that wasn't particular interesting.
Within a week of submission of the manuscript, the editors returned it without review, explained that it did not fit the general theme of the journal, and added some polite and constructive suggestions about the manuscript content and organization.
The author was extremely angry and sent a very unpleasant email. The focus of his ire was that the manuscript had not even been reviewed. This to him was a grave insult.
Would he really have been happier if the manuscript had gone through review, adding time (probably months) to the process? I suppose the author believed that reviewers would like the manuscript and therefore he felt deprived of a fair trial. The editors, however, were convinced that the manuscript would be eviscerated in review and it would be a waste of everyone's time to send it for review. And even if reviewers thought the manuscript had some intellectual merit, the manuscript still wasn't suitable for the journal to which it was submitted.
This all happened a year or more ago, but recently the editors got another long, irate email from the Angry Author, informing them that another journal had accepted his paper and, for their information, this other journal, of which he is an editor, has a higher impact factor in its category than the crummy journal that didn't even review his manuscript has in its (different) category. He mentioned again his anger that his manuscript was not even reviewed.
There are several conclusions one can make from the angry author's latest email:
- He has Issues. He has not moved on emotionally. He is bitter about the fact that his paper was not reviewed. Of course, he would also have been upset if the paper had gone out to review and been rejected, but perhaps then his anger would have been more diffuse.
- For some reason, he thought it would impress the editors to tell them that he is an editor of the journal that accepted his paper. I think it is strange that he would call attention to this fact, as it made some people wonder if his role as editor was a factor in the decision of this journal to publish his paper. I hope this was not the case.
- Impact factors are interesting, but perhaps not a good way to compare journals across categories. The journal that published his paper is not particularly prestigious and is not one I read, whereas the one that rejected his paper without review is central to my field. Perhaps this is an indication of the inappropriateness of his paper's topic for the journal to which he first sent it.
The editors decided not to reply to the angry email, but if they did, perhaps they would have written something like this:
Dear Angry Author,
Congratulations on your upcoming article to be published in The Third-Tier Journal. We are glad that you and your fellow editors found a suitable place for your contribution, and are pleased that we at First-Rate Journal were able to assist you in your efforts by our timely handling of your manuscript. How fortunate for you that our decision allowed you to publish in a journal with an impact factor you apparently find impressive.
We wish you the best of luck with your scientific endeavors, as well as your anger management, maturity, and ethics issues.
Memo to anyone feeling bitter about a non-review or even a rejection: If you send a hostile email to the editors of the journal that rejected your manuscript, including detailed descriptions of how stupid and short-sighted the editors were and information about the wonderful journal that ultimately published your paper, it is possible that they will not be impressed and will not feel even a speck of regret at their decision to reject your manuscript. I certainly can't speak for all editors, but I'm guessing that this might be a likely response.