The cover letter is a frequently overlooked part of submitting a paper to a journal for consideration. In fact it is not unusual for authors to write a very brief cover letter, containing only the most basic information about the paper as they are uploading the paper to a journal’s submission system, when they realise that one is required. But by doing so you miss an opportunity to promote your work and increase your chances of having your paper sent out for review. In this post we will talk about the uses and importance of cover letters, and how including a cover letter with your submission can help you achieve your publication goals.
What is the purpose of a cover letter?
A cover letter is a brief letter that accompanies your submission to a journal, and gives you the opportunity to communicate directly with the journal’s editor. When used correctly, a cover letter can positively influence the editor’s decision to consider your paper for publication.
The cover letter is often one of the first (if not the first) parts of a submission that a journal editor will read, so it provides an opportunity to make a good first impression. A professional, properly formatted and informative cover letter can convey to an editor the seriousness with which you take the submission and the suitability of the paper for their journal.
The cover letter is also a great opportunity to capture the editor’s attention in a positive way, by highlighting the most important findings from the paper and clearly outlining their significance and relevance to the journal’s scope. Many journal editors evaluate a large number of submissions on a daily basis, and do not always read every paper from beginning to end. Therefore, in addition to carefully crafting your title and abstract, it is important to include a well-written cover letter that emphasises the most central and important aspects of the paper. This letter can help attract the editor’s attention and make a strong case that your paper should be considered for publication at your target journal.
What information should I include in a cover letter?
A cover letter usually contains two main elements: basic administrative information, and a summary of the paper. The administrative details provided in the cover letter include information such as:
- the title of the manuscript;
- the name of the journal to which you are submitting;
- the type of article that you are submitting (e.g. original research, review, etc.).
The largest portion of the cover letter is dedicated to providing a complete, yet concise overview of the entire study. This summary can be thought of as a slightly less formal version of the abstract, in that its main purpose is to convey the most important information about the study. As such, this part of the cover letter should include some background information, a statement of the study purpose, a concise outline of the results, and a statement of the overall conclusion.
It is also important to include one to two sentences that address your motivation for submitting to that particular journal; for example, why do you believe that journal’s readers will have a specific interest in your paper? The role of this statement is to highlight the suitability of your paper to the journal in terms of scope and interest level.
Many journals also require the inclusion of some statement related to research and publication ethics. For example, if your study involved human subjects or animal models, you may need to include a declaration of ethical approval in the cover letter. Similarly, some journals will require you to state in the cover letter whether or not the paper is already under consideration at another journal, whether all of the authors agreed to submission, and whether any of the authors have conflicts of interest.
Finally, some journals ask that you use the cover letter to list suggested or excluded reviewers. Suggested reviewers are researchers who you think have the necessary expertise and objectivity to peer review your paper. Excluded reviewers are those who you believe are unsuitable to peer review your paper; for example, a competitor who you do not want to prematurely see your findings.
In general, the cover letter should not exceed one to one and a half pages, so all of this information needs to be presented very concisely. While it can be a challenge to write such a succinct letter, the benefit of this approach is that a short letter is more likely to be read in its entirety by the editor.
What is the difference between an abstract and a cover letter?
One mistake that researchers often make is to copy the abstract directly into the cover letter, to serve as the ‘summary’ mentioned above. While this may seem like a quick and easy shortcut, in reality this means that you have lost an opportunity to communicate directly with the editor, who is often looking for different things in your paper than, for example, a peer reviewer or another researcher. Some of the key points an editor is looking for in your cover letter are as follows:
- Suitability for the scope of the journal: The cover letter can provide a rapid, simple way to determine how relevant the paper is to the main focus of the journal; that is, how well it fits in with the other papers that it publishes. This is why we recommend including a clear, specific statement of your motivation for submitting to that journal.
- Level of advance: Journals are just as aware of their impact factors as researchers are, and a large part of many journal editors’ roles in evaluating submissions is determining whether a study’s findings merit publication in a journal with their journal’s impact factor. To determine this, an editor will identify the most important/significant advance that the study provides and weigh this against the average level of advance that other papers published in their journal provide. This is why it is crucial to very clearly state the objective significance of your study in the cover letter, to help shape the editor’s perception of the importance of the study.
- Main message of the paper: Closely related to the previous point is the main message of the paper. Ideally, the overall conclusion from the study will be clearly stated in the title and abstract of the paper, and will be argued persuasively throughout the text of the article. The cover letter gives you another chance to present this conclusion clearly and concisely, and to emphasise the main ‘take-home message’ from the paper.
In conclusion, including a cover letter with your paper provides a useful opportunity for communicating directly with the editor and highlighting the most interesting and important aspects of your study.
Charlesworth Author Services cover letter services include editing your cover letter to ensure that the key elements in your submission are conveyed clearly, to fully support your submission. Why not get in touch with a member of our Charlesworth Author Services team for more information?
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