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Papers must be of high quality and fall within the scope of the journal. There are four main ingredients to an acceptable paper:
Few papers excel in all of these, but a substandard level in any of the four ingredients is sufficient ground for rejection. Many papers require substantial revisions before acceptance, and reviewers should not hesitate to recommend that a paper be rejected pending changes that are required for completeness, correctness, or to substantially improve clarity.
More specific criteria apply to papers presenting theoretical results, which has been a particular issue in distributed or parallel computing. ACM TOCS does not accept papers that belong in more theoretical journals (e.g. JACM, Springer-Verlag's "Distributed Computing", Journal of Parallel and Distributed Computing). This does not imply that all theoretical papers are to be rejected; rather it implies that theoretical papers that cannot establish their direct relevance to current issues in the development of computer systems will generally be rejected. An acceptable paper of this type should contain:
In addition, reviewers should be aware that because of the relative rarity with which such papers are accepted, the standards for originality and impact are unusually stringent in these cases.
For more information on specific topics, see the ACM publications policies.