I just finished passing around my nearly-finished manuscript with my co-authors and they have provided feedback. A year and a half of planning, executing and writing have resulted in this important document. I make my final edits, and voila, I am done! Am I ready to submit? Not so fast. Most scientific journals require a manuscript cover letter that I must submit along with my manuscript. This guide outlines how to write a successful cover letter for your science manuscript.
Like the Specific Aims page of a grant, the cover letter is an opportunity to succinctly describe what you have done, describe how your findings will impact the field, and communicate why these findings are particularly relevant to the particular journal that you have chosen.
The manuscript cover letter is not a mere formality. At many journals, you must pass an initial hurdle even before your paper is sent out for peer review: editorial screening. Put simply, the editor will read your cover letter (and perhaps your abstract) and ask, “If everything the authors are telling me about their work is true, is the science of significant importance to the field and well-matched for our journal?” At this editorial stage, the editor makes no judgment about the quality of your work. Indeed, at this stage, the editor is giving you the benefit of the doubt that you have conducted sound research.
If the answer to the initial editorial question is “yes, this sounds like an interesting and significant study,” then the editor will send it out for peer review and reviewers will evaluate the scientific merit of the work. But if the answer to the initial editorial question is no, then there is no need to advance the paper for peer review. So you can see the importance of writing a compelling cover letter. The cover letter is your chance to showcase the importance your science.
How to start.
Your cover letter should begin with a salutation addressing the Editor by name, (e.g., Dear Dr. Reynolds: ). If this information is not provided by the journal, then you can simply begin with “Dear Editor:” as your salutation. Your first sentence will always contain the title of your work. A reasonable opening sentence would be as follows: “We are submitting a manuscript titled “[Insert title here]” that we wish to have considered for publication in [Insert journal name here].” Then, in a sentence or two, communicate the overall importance of what you have found and how it will impact the field – do not include details about your methods here (which you will save for the second paragraph). End with a sentence stating why this finding will be of interest of to the readers of the particular journal that you have chosen.
How to middle.
You should think of your second paragraph as a shorter version of your Abstract. Think about what you did in your Abstract. You provided the reader with some scientific context (i.e., this is what the field currently knows). Next, you summarized your Methods (i.e., this is what we did), and you provided your Results (i.e., this is what we found). Finally, you gave them a take home message (i.e., this is why you should care). You should do the same thing in this paragraph to the editor. Be concise. Four sentences.
[dropshadowbox align=”none” effect=”lifted-both” width=”auto” height=”” background_color=”#D3D3D3″ border_width=”1″ border_color=”#dddddd” ]“To our knowledge . . .”
Many researchers include statements like “Here we show for the first time . . .” or “To our knowledge, this is the first demonstration…” in the body of their manuscript. In the era of twitter and social media, this has become an increasingly popular phrase to throw about in scientific discourse, but it should be avoided in both your manuscript and your cover letter. History will record whether your work was the first of its kind, not you. Leave phrases like these out. [/dropshadowbox]
How to finish.
Your last paragraph should include a final statement assuring the editor that the work you have submitted has not been a) simultaneously submitted elsewhere and b) previously published in part or in whole. Similarly, you should alert the editor if your paper contains new data that have been combined with previously published data. This information should be included in the Methods section of your manuscript, where you will also provide the reference to where the previously published data can be found. Your cover letter should end by thanking the editor for their time and consideration.
Recommending Potential Reviewers.
Some journals will request that you provide them with the name and contact details of potential reviewers. First, make sure that you search potential reviewers online to ensure that you have the most up-to-date contact information for each person. Your job here is to make it easy for the editor to contact your suggested reviewers. If an editor has trouble finding your suggested reviewer, they will simply select someone else.
Second, suggest people in the field that you know have the expertise to evaluate your work. The editor has been assigned your paper by the journal because they know the field well and, thus, they know the people who are qualified to review your manuscript. Do not suggest a reviewer whose expertise is tangential to the subject matter at hand – the editor will likely ignore your suggestion.
Third, suggest only potential reviewers with which you have no conflict of interest. If you have published with another scientist within the past few years, it would be inappropriate to suggest them as a reviewer.
Is it ok to exclude potential reviewers?
Some journals allow you to list non-preferred reviewers. Perhaps there is a scientist you feel simply does not respect your work or that you feel you are in direct competition with. It is always tricky to know what to do here. On the one hand, the editor may respect your request and exclude your non-preferred reviewer. On the other hand, the editor may have great respect for your non-preferred reviewer and may now wish to know what their take on the work is. That is, you may have just suggested a reviewer that the editor might not have thought to involve in the first place.
In general, it is best to trust the scientific process and not get involved in excluding potential reviewers. Most scientists can put their biases aside and evaluate good science fairly. That said, if you do still wish to exclude a particular potential reviewer, it might help to include a statement in the final paragraph of your cover letter explaining the nature of the conflict of interest to the editor.
Ready to submit.
You are now done and ready to submit. I hope we have made it clear that when it comes to your cover letter, less is more. That is, keep it as brief as possible – no more than one page. Editors have to read many of these letters amidst their otherwise busy schedules. Say what you want to say as clearly and briefly as possible. For an example of a cover letter that we have edited click here.
Remember, different journals have different criteria for the cover letter. For example, some will want a full-page signed pdf on letterhead, whereas others may have you enter your cover letter directly in their online submission form. Always check the Instructions for Authors section for specific guidelines relevant to your journal of choice. Finally, if you should have Complete Science Solutions edit your manuscript or grant, we will be happy to edit your cover letter for free. Either way, good luck with your letter and your submission.
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