Early May, I sent a paper to a journal - a generalist journal. A couple of days ago, I received a reject decision from the journal. The review time, less than the standard 3 months, was decent. But unfortunately, I received no referee comments. Instead, I got the following message "Given the volume of submissions to [journal], it is not always possible to send comments to authors." This is the third time this happens to me - in the other two cases, a paper of mine was also under review at a top-20 generalist journals. All instances have happened in the last two years, indicating it might be a growing trend. The reject after months without comment feels like a desk rejection, one that took 2 to 4 months to come through. What explains this phenomenon?
This was not the case for my paper, though, since it was definitely shown as "under review" in the editorial system. So here is a second possible scenario that another associate editor told me about: some general journals ask referees to provide quick judgments without justification (in the case of rejection) to speed up the process of finding referees. The referee then in effect becomes the desk rejector, sending in a recommendation (no report) after less than a month.
Is this a good development? I think it is not for two reasons. First, when one does not need to justify a rejection (in a format the author can see), it becomes easy to dismiss a paper on the basis of superficial characteristics rather than on the basis of content. Hmm, this doesn't seem like it's one of those debates that analytic philosophers obsess over now. Nope, this looks definitely too fringe for this general philosophy journal. Reject! Biases about what counts as proper "philosophy" plague our discipline, and especially general philosophy journals. Not requiring justification may exacerbate these biases, since they effectively take the (overworked) referee off the hook for even reading the paper in detail!
Second, referee reports are helpful to authors, especially those who do not come from prestigious institutions. Imagine someone working in a small liberal arts college or community college, one of three philosophers in the department. That person has a small budget for travel, for perhaps one conference per year that is not reachable by car. Yet for tenure, s/he is expected to publish more, and so s/he needs to submit papers s/he has not been able to get any feedback on. In this situation, the referee reports are often the first time a competent peer provides feedback on a paper and they can be helpful for the author to improve the paper and get it accepted.
By contrast, in big, prestigious institutions there are lots of opportunities for getting feedback from peers. As a postdoc in Oxford, for instance, I got all the papers I wrote during that period (and a substantial part of the monograph) testrun during work-in-progress seminars, populated by talented postdocs, DPhil and BPhil students, and also visiting scholars. So if we do away with referee reports for rejected papers it will affect people who are already disadvantaged, while the loss is minimal for people who are already in a position of power and prestige and who get quality feedback anyway.