Ask us anything: cover letters for ms submissions

A while back we invited readers to ask us anything. Here’s our answer to the next question, from Chris.

What tips/suggestions do you have for writing a cover letter when submitting a manuscript? Does it vary depending on the outlet (e.g., higher impact journal vs. something narrower in scope)?

Jeremy: I have an old post on one part of the cover letter: suggesting referees and non-preferred referees. You should also suggest 1-2 handling editors, with a brief rationale (a phrase is fine). Remember, the EiC is almost certainly not an expert on the topic of your ms and so may well welcome advice on which editor should be assigned to handle it.

Many selective journals ask you to explain why your ms is of interest to the journals readers and how it’s novel. That bit needs to be good, otherwise you’re at risk of rejection without review. Especially at Science and Nature; you need to sweat every word of your cover letter if you’re aiming that high. Don’t just copy and paste your abstract, either; you’re aiming for something less technical than that.

You also need to include various bits of legalese (promising that you followed animal care protocols, etc.). Most journals provide a list of the points they want you to cover.

Brian: In my new role as editor-in-chief (EiC) I cannot stress how important the cover letter is. Many journals these days reject more than 50% of the papers on first read by the EiC (no its not a desirable situation but it is a natural outcome of people consistently sending their papers where they are not really appropriate). For many EiC the cover letter is make or break in this decision. And the EiC may be looking at 10 papers a day (usually in an hour).

Thus as Jeremy says there is the legalese (all authors have been consulted on the manuscript, all deserving people are named as authors, this manuscript is not under consideration elsewhere). And there are the reviewer/editor requests (or negative requests). These should all go at the end of the letter.

Then there is the first paragraph. The first paragraph (and possibly the second but you’re probably being too verbose if you have two long paragraphs) of your cover letter needs to make a compelling case that: a) you know what fits in the journal and you fit their journal (read their author instructions – people are not shy about what they want in their journal) and b) that the paper makes an exciting advance.

Its that simple. And that hard. But after the abstract, this may be the 2nd most important paragraph you write even though only one or two people will ever see it.


12 thoughts on “Ask us anything: cover letters for ms submissions

  1. I have two questions regarding the cover letter, if I may…
    – How long is it expected to be? One page, two pages, more?…
    – Regarding text format – is it better (i.e. easier for the editor to look at) to send it as a file with a “formal” formatting, or just insert its text in the Comments box during submission?

    • My two cents
      – you are probably best to keep it to a page – cover letters are only read by people reading a lot of manuscripts at once (editors). Reviewers rarely read them. By the same token get the part they’re looking for (what you did and why it is really important) in the first part of the letter. Leave the pro forma stuff for the end.
      – I would recommend both. I know with GEB we have 3 different ways a cover letter can get attached. Different people look in different places. Put the same letter in every opportunity you get. Personally I prefer a formatted letter if I can find it

  2. Hi,

    actually it would be a great thing and an invaluable resource for students and postdocs to compile some successful examples on a website (i.e. some cover letters belonging to papers that were later published by the selective journals where they’ve been submitted). Does anybody know if this already exists anywhere?

    • I’m not aware of a compilation of good cover letters.

      Note that you can’t necessarily identify good cover letters just by whether the paper was eventually published in a selective journal. The paper’s eventual fate depends on more than just the cover letter. And the quality of the cover letter necessarily is tied to the quality of the paper, since the cover letter is based on the paper.

    • I will try to look into seeing if I can get some letters posted when I get time. In the meantime, asking colleagues who have been successful is a good strategy.

    • I have done this myself by asking friends/colleagues for their letters after their papers have been accepted into high impact journals. People might be more willing so share with a select few (in fact they might be flattered at being asked) but unwilling to post on the internet. I have done the same thing and borrowed successful grant and fellowship applications.

  3. I’m interested in the legalese point. I’ve never included this in a cover letter (There are usually check boxes for this stuff in the submission forms) and no one has ever commented to me before about this info being missing in my cover letters. I also looked at the cover letter description in the author guidelines for one BES and three ESA journals and none of them asked for statements about ethical/legal issues unless there was a conflict to disclose. Maybe I should start including it though.

    • I suppose if the online submission system lets you check boxes for all the legal stuff you could just leave it out of your cover letter. But I always just leave it in, maybe out of habit as much as anything. (I’m old enough to remember the time before online ms handling systems. And I had to walk 10 miles through the snow to school, and it was uphill both ways.) Anyway, it’s the same boilerplate in every letter, so you can just copy and paste it.

  4. Pingback: Friday links: Daphnia theme song, RIP PubMed Commons, Joy of Cooking vs. p-hacking, and more | Dynamic Ecology

  5. Via Twitter, Casey terHorst suggests that Brian (and any EiC who operates similarly) is not doing proper peer review:

    I’m no fan of desk rejects myself. My main personal motivation for suggesting PubCreds ( was to engineer a world in which desk rejects would no longer be seen as necessary. But we don’t live in that world, and I don’t see any way to bring that world about (which arguably just suggests lack of will and/or imagination on my part, though of course I wouldn’t agree). In the world we live in, desk rejects seem to me like the least-bad way of dealing with the fact that many mss submitted to selective journals are low quality and/or poor fits to those journals. That is, they’re such low quality and/or such poor fits that the EiC, and/or handling editor, can make a good guess (not perfect, but good) as to whether the ms would be rejected after review, just by reading the cover letter, and maybe in some cases the abstract and/or a very quick skim of the ms. Much like how, if you sit on an ecology faculty search committee, you can tell with a quick glance at someone’s cv if they’re totally non-competitive for the position or a very poor fit. Assuming for the sake of argument that the EiC can guess which mss are likely to fare very badly in review, it would arguably be wasting the time of the reviewers *and the authors* to send those mss out for review.

    But of course, I’m sure there are folks who would question some/all of the premises of that argument. Which raises the question of what’s the alternative. In particular, there’s the idea of doing away with all selective journals. Instead, all reviews should be for technical soundness only, and then all other filtering should be done post-publication. Still more radically, one could do away with all pre-publication reviews. Just have preprint servers, and everybody can decide to read, believe, comment on, and act on whatever preprints they want, using whatever criteria they want. And there are other, less radical alternatives, like “selective journals should just send every ms they receive out for review, and spend as long as it takes to find reviewers for every single ms.” It’s not clear to me that the alternatives are improvements on the status quo, but I suspect your mileage may vary on that. Some semi-relevant old posts:

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