10 quick cover-letter tips for submitting scientific papers

This is more a list of don’ts than dos; there’s a serious blog post/editorial that needs to be written about how to write an effective cover letter, but for now, here’s a quick checklist for you all…

1. Send in a cover letter with your submission explaining why it’s as awesome as you think it is and why I should come to the same conclusion. It always puzzles me when there is no cover letter… this is your 10 minutes alone in a room with the editor, making your case for why she/he should care about the work.

2. This means not just copying the abstract of your paper and dropping it word-for-word into the cover letter. I’ll read the abstract when I get to the paper.

3. Ditto for the introduction paragraph(s) from the paper – these don’t belong in the cover letter either.

4. Ditto for the concluding paragraph(s) from the paper – you get the picture by now.

5. When your cover letter launches into the carefully reasoned explanation of why This Particular Journal is the most suitable forum for the publication of your paper, make sure the journal you’re actually submitting to is This Particular Journal otherwise you might look a bit silly. No editor should reject a manuscript based on an author revealing the Journal That Already Rejected My Paper in the cover letter, but you know what, it’s just polite to update your cover letter and it means that you don’t get the editor worrying about how closely you’ve been paying attention to the paper and the science itself (not just the cover letter).

6. Ditto the cover letter date. Why is the cover letter dated 5 weeks ago? Huh, weird.

7. If you’re going to refer to the editor of the journal by name in your cover letter, make sure you’ve got the correct editor name/journal name/journal office address combo.

8. Probably best to spend more time on why your work is so great than on why everyone else’s work in this area sucks.

9. If you’re going to give a list of particular sub-disciplines in your field where you think people will find your paper interesting (this seems to happen in chemistry a fair bit), explain *why* you think they will find the work interesting. It’s useless otherwise.

10. Suggest the names (and contact details) of experts who you think would be able to provide an impartial evaluation of the research described in your manuscript. Editors will almost certainly not choose a group of referees (there must be a better collective noun for ‘referees’ than ‘group’ – suggestions welcome in the comments) just from your suggestions, but they do provide a helpful starting point – it also makes it clear to the editor that you are aware of the community that is working in the areas of research described in your paper. Some journals allow you to name referees/nemeses who you’d rather we didn’t send your precious bundle of joy to – if this list gets too long or excludes everyone else who works in the same area, however, it tends to activate the big flashing red light (with really loud siren) installed in most editorial offices*. *Not really, but you get the point I hope.

BONUS: You remembered to update your cover letter and make sure it matches the journal that you are *now* submitting to. Did you update the supplementary information statement? You know, the one that often mentions a particular journal.

(UPDATED later in the day this entry was first posted to add a few more points following some Twitter conversation – also, for some great (tongue-in-cheek) examples of what not to do, look at #overlyhonestcoverletters!)

11. Do not leverage buzzwords, and avoid clichés like the plague. Your work is a paradigm shift? Really? You’ve shifted paradigms? (Thanks to @jermynation for reminding me about this one on Twitter). And unless you’re actually talking about *the* Holy Grail (which I doubt you are), don’t go there (sub req’d).

12. Again, thanks to @jermynation for pointing out that celebrity endorsements from Professor Big Shot aren’t necessary in cover letters either. If Prof. Big Shot has told you that your work is amazing (and they really meant it), just keep your fingers crossed that the stars align and we send it to them to review.

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11 Responses to 10 quick cover-letter tips for submitting scientific papers

  1. Pep says:

    Nice collection of points, Stu.

    However, I think that covers are overrated (and say so in my talks). The most important aspect of the letter is to provide context for the findings as well as their implications if these are not apparent from the manuscript.

    To me, a good cover letter looks something like this:
    Dear editor,

    My colleagues and I would appreciate it if you would consider our work on [short sentence].

    We show that [short summary paragraph].

    We feel that our findings are important because [short paragraph on background and context].

    Our results should have implications for [short paragraph that conveys how the findings are going to improve understanding, methodology or technology].

    Thank you for your time.

    Best regards,

    Corresponding author

    I often read the paper before I read the cover letter. In most cases, I then find the cover letter to be superfluous. Also, specifying formatting aspects (such as number of figures and word count) in the cover letter is (to me) useless, and I actually don’t mind it when authors forget to update letters submitted to previous journals or if they do not submit any.

    When they are useful, cover letters convey a story that is not apparent from the manuscript, and one that doesn’t exaggerate the importance or implications of the findings.

  2. stu says:

    Thanks for the comments Pep. Funnily enough, I think cover letters are massively underrated… when I get around to it, I’ll put up a post explaining what I think makes a good one.

  3. This is useful at least in grasping an idea of what an editor looks for. I started to realize the importance of cover letters when I watched Episode 2 of the ACS “Publishing Your Research 101” videos a while back.
    The issue is, as seen by Pep’s comments, editors definitely differ on their importance/relevance. In the end, better to have a good letter that isn’t read than a shoddy letter that is read.
    I do like Pep’s aforementioned short format and will attempt that when the journal doesn’t require a laundry list of content in the cover letter (author names and positions, reviewer list, statement saying it’s not submitted elsewhere, yada yada yada)

  4. A while ago I too submitted a CL with the wrong journal name on it; I forgot to update it. I was so ashamed to find out my mistake and I only did it after the paper was once again rejected. Although the editor didn’t mention it I’m sure my lack of proofing didn’t help my case.
    Good science defends itself, right? In my opinion making it good is not about coming up with great answers but with the right questions and that, to me, is the toughest part.

    Best wishes

  5. Well, this post has really made me think!
    I find this cover letter thing weird, but then I come from a discipline, psychology, where, as far as I know, they aren’t taken seriously. When I was an editor, I ignored cover letters completely because I felt what mattered was whether the paper was good – no amount of the author telling me so was going to influence that. I wanted to get to the meat of the paper.
    I can see a cover letter may assume importance for the kind of journal that triages stuff and rejects a lot without review, but I don’t usually mess with those journals. And the journal I edited (like most journals in my field) would send the majority of papers out for review unless they were real no-hopers.
    Also, when the paper is published, the cover letter won’t be there. So I reckon that you need the abstract to be the place where you make readers aware of what you’ve done and why it is important – that’s what determines whether people will read it once it’s published.
    Your post has been very helpful in making me aware that I need to start writing proper cover letters if I want to tangle with the high impact players, but I still find it odd that it should be seen as so important. The impression you give is that an ace paper could be sunk by a poor cover letter – I find this scary if true.

  6. stu says:

    @deevybee – thanks for your comments. As you can see from Pep’s comment, even editors at Nature journals have very differing views of cover letters. I agree that for journals that send most submissions out to referees, the cover letter is not really all that important (your paper is likely getting sent out no matter what). I also take your point about the abstract being where the importance of the work is made clear, but our abstracts are limited to 150 words and so are typically concise and to the point (and that’s a good thing). It may well be different in other fields, but many chemistry papers can be quite dense and dry in terms of writing style (rightly or wrongly) and I often say that the cover letter is where the authors’ enthusiasm for the work can really shine through and can be expressed in something other than the dry scientific (and formulaic) language of the papers themselves. I don’t think a paper would be sunk by having no (or a poor) cover letter – we read every paper and judge them on their merits. Editors are, for the most part, human (if they’ve had enough coffee) and can sometimes miss the point of a paper or not see the significance of the work in the same terms as the authors – and this is what can lead to appeals. I think a good cover letter can focus the mind of the editor on the crucial aspects of the work; I don’t see that as swaying or biasing the editor, and every author has the same opportunity to write a cover letter. It’s maybe not a totally accurate analogy, but when I’m recruiting, it’s not just the CV that matters, it’s the cover letter too, that really helps me see the strengths and weaknesses of a candidate.

  7. Pingback: Communicating Science – What’s wrong with you, France ? | Sylvain Deville

  8. Fedup says:

    Bunch of dopey talk, which does not account for a readers’/authors’ view, often by editors who have not made an impactful contribution to the scientific endeavor (i.e. “professional” editors). When I view journals that cater to a broad audience I likely find less than 10% of interest to any facet of my life. And what are impact factors, other than a measure of “mine is bigger than yours”, in what way do they represent anything truly meaningful? Of course, IF drives editors to “choose” the “best” or the “broadest impacting” science.
    It is time scientists (and yes that does mean editors too!) to think of what science is really supposed to mean, and here are some hints: not metrics, or broad appeal, or h-factors. It is hardly a surprise then that many bright bulbs do not want to be in the sciences but prefer the more lucrative professions where the satisfaction is in the remuneration, which of course is more meaningful than any IF or h-factor. Food for thought?

  9. Fred M. says:

    Late last night/early this morning, after meticulously editing the ms, I sent what was probably my most important communication to date to my favorite journal (published several papers with previously). I just realized, in horror, that I’d left an old journal title on the cover letter (got the Editor name right, but forgot to change journal title – I use a template for all my CLs. It’s a competing journal, similar scope and format, eek!).
    Anyways, I cannot withdraw it to re-submit as it is being processed – should I send an email to the editor to apologize or wait for feedback? I am feeling very anxious as the work is very compelling and I’d hate to see it suffer at the hands of a cover letter, which it probably won’t but that’s what’s going on in my mind… ugh.

    • stu says:

      Even though I list all those things above, at the end of the day, the editor should be judging the work on its own merits, not on whether you got the journal name right in the cover letter. Let it be and see what happens.

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