How To Write A Scientific Journal Cover Letter

It may seem obvious, but a journal editor's first serious impression of a submitted manuscript lies not only with the article title but also, rather simply, with the cover letter. The cover letter is your first "formal" interaction with a journal, and it embodies a request, so to speak, to consider your article for publication. But it also provides you with an excellent opportunity to present the significance of your scientific contribution.

I've worked as an editor for primary research and review manuscripts alike, and despite their many similarities, there are distinctions to writing the cover letter for each. Here are some helpful tips for writing a suitable cover letter for Cell Press scientific journals. 

Cover letter basics: What do we look for?

1. Let's start with content. We look for letters that start by succinctly explaining what was previously known in a given field and then state the authors' motivation for wishing to publish. Following that, the conceptual advance, timeliness, and novelty should be immediately conveyed. What sets apart this scientific contribution? What is the significance of the work, and where does the article lead us? Will this research be of interest to a broad readership?

2. Get to the point. We want a concise letter that quickly gets to the main point and the take-home message; this sets the stage for your manuscript. Succinctly explain the topic of discussion, and quickly convey the key conclusions. Do not submit a long dissertation. Generally, one page suffices and is preferred.

3. Do not rehash the abstract of the paper. Copying and pasting the abstract into your cover letter verbatim is a big no-no. Instead, we seek a synthesis of the key points—possibly, and depending on style, the summary might resemble a brief story pitch in an elevator! But importantly, you need to venture beyond the summary: write a sentence that takes you further than the obvious conclusions. How does the content move the field forward? Are the implications far-reaching?

4. Get excited! Authors' excitement about their scientific contributions can undoubtedly inspire the editor who's reading the cover letter. Overall, the sentiment of "you're gonna love reading this paper!" should seep through—make that happen!

5. Include a wish list of reviewers. Relevant information on potential reviewers (including their field of expertise) can be included and is definitely a plus, as it can be quite helpful to the editor. By contrast, please don't provide a long list of excluded reviewers (three maximum), and most certainly do not suggest excluding authors from entire continents on the map! Also, save the editor some time by specifying which author should be the lead contact, and indicate their affiliation.

6. Keep it simple ... and humble. In terms of style, consider sincerity and simplicity. The letter should be humble and forthcoming; don't be ostentatious or florid. Claims of priority, if not fully supported, tend to be a turnoff. In addition, statements indicating that the article or related findings have been presented at X number of conferences and are "tremendously" well received by the scientific community—or otherwise—do not add much to the cover letter. They might instead suggest right off the bat that a lot of cooing and convincing of the journal editor will be required. So let the "science" speak for itself. Also, a statement declaring that the article is original and isn't being considered elsewhere can only add to your cause!

7. Proofread your letter by checking the spelling, grammar, and syntax. A well-written letter indicates that you take your submission seriously and that you are an author who pays attention to detail.

8. Check every detail. Avoid mistakes such as directing the cover letter to the editor(s) of a different journal, or to a different journal altogether. This might suggest that you've submitted your article elsewhere, that it might have been poorly received, and perhaps that the Cell Press journal you're submitting to isn't your first choice. It could also suggest that you don't pay sufficient attention to detail. Sadly, these sorts of errors continue to surprise me and happen more often than I would like.

The cover letter:  Primary research or Trends reviews?

There are subtle differences in writing a cover letter for a primary research journal versus a reviews journal, such as the Trends journals at Cell Press.

Many different article formats exist within both the primary research journals and the Trends journals. Make sure it's very clear which type of format you're submitting. As the Editor of Trends in Molecular Medicine, I find that this detail is not always specified by the author(s) in the cover letter. Knowing what type of manuscript you are submitting can help you fully nail down the cover letter in terms of the intent, scope, and take-home message of the article. It also recapitulates your prior agreement with the editor regarding article format: is it a review or an opinion piece?

Along these lines, the content of your cover letter will differ for a review or opinion piece as opposed to an original research contribution. For both, the timeliness and novelty need to strongly come across. However, for a research article, the specific advance relative to previous experimental findings needs to be clearly indicated. For a Trends article, the synthesis and conceptual advance should be particularly stated in terms of what is new and has been trending in the field for the last one to five years. For an opinion piece, take a strong and novel stance on a hypothesis or idea. Projecting into the future, beyond the main take-home message of the paper, is also a strong consideration for Trends articles.

I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the journal that you are submitting to—browse through the journal website and do your homework on author guidelines and the scope of the journal prior to submission! In the case of Trends journals, know who the editor is. Each Trends journal is run by a single editor, so beginning your cover letter with "Dear Madam" when the editor is male, or "Dear Sir" when the editor is female, may not create a favorable impression. While such mistakes are usually overruled by the content and quality of the science, it certainly helps to have your cover letter completely in order!

Keep on writing—we love hearing from you and receiving your submissions! For more tips on writing cover letters for scientific manuscripts, check out this page. Also read more from Cell Press Editor in Chief Emilie Marcus on when—and when not—to submit your paper.

You have worked hard to prepare your manuscript for submission to a journal you have chosen carefully. Now, introduce your manuscript with a great cover letter. Although many authors hastily compose this document, the cover letter can make or break your chances of publication: it can make the difference between being granted a peer review and being rejected outright. Follow the guidelines below to make your cover letter and manuscript stand out. Feel free to use this template to construct your cover letter, and modify it according to your needs.

The basic elements of the cover letter include a heading/salutation, the body, and the closing:

Heading and salutation
  • The heading includes the name and title of the Editor-in-Chief or handling editor, the name of the journal, and the date. See a sample heading here.
  • The salutation is a standard greeting (e.g., Dear Dr xxx:) addressed to the Editor-in-Chief or handling editor. If you cannot find the name of the appropriate editor, you can write “Dear Editor:”
Body
  • The body is the heart of the cover letter; this is where you will make the case for why your paper should be granted a peer review.
  • Begin with a concise opening statement announcing that you are submitting a manuscript entitled [“your title”] for consideration as a Research Article, Letter, Brief Communication, Note, or other format tailored to the journal. See a sample opening statement here.
  • Next, provide a brief but compelling description or summary of the most important or interesting findings addressed by your manuscript. If you have previous publications that provide the context for your study, you can briefly mention them here with the supporting citations. This summary will help to determine whether the editor will consider your paper further. The summary should be limited to just a few sentences. Consider the following points to help you craft your summary:
    • Why is your study important?
    • What are your most interesting findings?
    • What are the implications and broader significance of the findings?
    • What gaps in the research does your study fill?
  • After the description of your study, provide a brief statement of how or why the work is relevant to the scope of the target journal and of interest to its readership. This should be based on the statedAims and Scopeof the journal and on your knowledge of the journal’s content. A strong statement says more than that you “believe” your findings are relevant and of interest. How does your work relate to the journal’s focus and other research published in it? This section should show that you have made a well-informed choice when selecting the target journal for your manuscript. See a sample summary and statement of relevance here.
  • The final paragraph of the body covers a few formalities (see example here). This paragraph should confirm that:
    • The research is original.
    • The manuscript has not been published elsewhere and is not under consideration by any other journal.
    • All the authors have approved of the submission of the manuscript to this journal.
    • There are no conflicts of interest.
    • Informed consent was provided (humans), and appropriate ethical standards were followed (humans and animals)—if relevant.
    • Suggested reviewers: Many journals invite or require authors to list recommended peer reviewers for their manuscript and to mention any individuals they would strongly prefer NOT to review the manuscript (e.g., because of a conflict of interest). Select these individuals carefully, and keep these statements polite.
Closing
  • The final sentence should simply express appreciation for the editor’s consideration. For example, “Thank you for your consideration of our manuscript. I look forward to hearing from you.”
  • An appropriate and common closing is “Sincerely.” The closing is followed by your signature and typed name, institutional affiliation and address, and contact information (see a sample closing here).
Key Points
  • Editors want to know that you have selected their journal based on your familiarity with its focus and content and the appropriateness of your work to its scope and readership. It is advantageous to you to help the Editor-in-Chief to understand how your paper complements other research published in the journal. Doing this does not guarantee that your manuscript will receive a peer review, but failing to do this may reduce the chances that your work will stand out and be taken seriously.
  • The cover letter should be concise. Editors read many cover letters each day and may simply skim over letters that are longer than a few short paragraphs.
  • Clearly emphasize why the research is important, novel, or interesting.
  • Avoid presenting numeric details and other highly specific results unless they are essential to your conclusion.
  • Some journals have specific requirements for cover letters. Read the journal’s “Instructions for authors” carefully, and make sure that all required contents are included.
  • If your study builds on previous work that you have published, or directly relates to other papers published in the target journal, it is appropriate to mention that and to cite these studies in the letter.
  • The cover letter must be well written and free of spelling and grammar errors. If there are glaring errors in this important document, the Editor-in-Chief may assume that your manuscript will also be sloppy. At best, the editor is likely to have low expectations for your manuscript if the cover letter is poorly written. Always run a spelling and grammar check, and have a colleague review your cover letter before you send it.

Do you have questions or insights about writing cover letters? Please leave your comments and questions below.

Anne Altor PhD, PWS

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