Do scientific manuscripts need cover letters?

James Kenar
James Kenar

How important is it to include a cover letter with a manuscript submission?

It seems that opinions differ. A 2013 article in Science Careers asked if it was a “relic;” but in a recent editorial, a journal editor reassures his readers that yes, he reads every cover letter — and yes, it’s important. (If you agree with him, let us know in our poll, below.)

In “Dear Authors: We Do Read Your Cover Letters,” James Kenar, editor of the Journal of the American Oil Chemists’ Society, insists on their importance:

The cover letter serves as an important persuasive tool in an author’s arsenal. Used effectively, it provides an excellent opportunity for the author to communicate and lobby directly with the editor and grab their attention. The cover letter introduces the manuscript and supplies critical insights into the merits of the work to the editors. A concisely written cover letter is a valuable document that summarizes the research for editors and reviewers and may make the difference between a granted peer-review or outright rejection.

What do you think?

Hat tip: Rolf Degen

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20 thoughts on “Do scientific manuscripts need cover letters?”

  1. We once hosted the editors of two leading journals in our field for presentations and Q&A on how to get published in their journals. One said that she never reads the cover letter, the other one said that it is incredibly important…

  2. I am the editor of a journal in the social sciences. I certainly read every cover letter, but I rarely find them useful at all. They were previously helpful when authors identified preferred/opposed reviewers, but now they do that directly in the submission portal. Frankly, I am not at all interested in the authors’ “pitch” for why they think the article is worthy of publication. The paper needs to communicate the value directly, as that is what readers will ultimately see.

    1. Agreed. There is already a place for the authors to explain clearly the importance of their work to the editors and readers of the journal in question. It is called ‘the abstract’.

    2. Was wondering if you dont find cover letters useful because they are badly written or just that you dont use the information. usually, I will make a very concise synopsis of the key message of the work in a non technical way and give salient achievements of the paper which could be easily googled and verified about its novelty. I thought this might help my potehntial editor to have a grasp of my story and not go to the details of it.
      In case you dont use the information, I will like to know how you as an editor would base your decision on weather a paper should be peer reviewed.. (assuming it is not a in the field that you expertise in) and if the reviewers comments are mixed, how do you judge the merit of the paper.
      Awaiting a response


      1. The letters typically just do not convey any useful information. As I indicated, I am not interested in any kind of sales pitch. I screen papers to ensure they are on a topic that falls within the scope of the journal and for methodological quality. I need not be an expert in the substantive area to do that. That said, it is clear from this discussion that the importance of cover letters varies considerably from field to field and journal to journal.

  3. I am missing the option “in certain cases”. I have one case coming up where we want to highlight in the cover letter that the journal in question should publish our paper because it has published quite a few papers that make a (easily shown to be) wrong claim. The abstract itself can make it clear it is a very common (false) claim, but much less why exactly *that* journal should then consider publishing our ‘rebuttal’.

  4. I edited a journal for three years. I found the letters very useful. Mostly I found the occasional terse submission letter the same way I consider a terse hallway greeting. It won’t kill you to be courteous or helpful in my task.

  5. “…lobby directly with the editor…” This strikes me as an explicit admission that editors can be biased and easily swayed by factors unrelated to the actual quality of the science. The merits of a manuscript should stand on their own. Bias and lobbying have no place in scientific publishing, and although they certainly exist, it’s disturbing when an editor so frankly invites authors to lobby him. As for a cover letter introducing the manuscript, that’s what the abstract is for.

    1. Finally a common sense answer; if the journal deems it necessary, then they should ask for it. If not, they should stop messing up with people’s time. Period.

  6. This is quite interesting. We spend quite a bit of the time preparing a cover letter. We need this poll from the editors weather they need it or not. 🙂

  7. Have been told by a number of the most influential researchers in in my field that the cover letter is as important (if not more so) than the actual manuscript! Would guess though that there is a lot of journal to journal, and particularly editor to editor variation.

  8. It’s probably field-dependent, but I’ve never included a cover letter with a manuscript submission, and every paper I’ve submitted has been ultimately accepted to that journal (apart from one we withdrew because the referee was being an unprofessional dill-hole, and the editor wouldn’t step in).

  9. I am curious as to the editors who claim give short shrift to the cover letter. Would they treat all cover letters the same way irrespective of who the corresponding author is? Say a “renowned” scientist, may be a Nobelist perhaps? Would they be as dismissive or even not read at all?

  10. In my opinion, the cover letter is really helpful when you are aiming for a high impact journal from a lesser known field. If it’s not a hot topic, no nice images and not even promising eternal life and a cure for cancer, the cover letter needs to briefly explain why is your research actually worthy of publishing there. You cant expect the editor to be up to date with everything across multiple fields.

  11. I am an editor at the journal Science Signaling and I think that cover letters are very important. I read every one. Indeed, when I give talks about publishing, I always advise authors that once they’ve finished writing their cover letters, they should go back and rewrite their abstracts. There’s something liberating about writing the cover letter that enables authors to really describe what is interesting and exciting about their work; they don’t seem to have the same freedom when writing within the constraints of the abstract. Thus, rather than being the last thing that authors write before they submit their manuscript, which I suspect is mostly true, the cover letter should be the second-last.

  12. What do I think? I think that it is a pretty sorry excuse for an editor who thinks that it is important that he be “lobbied” and pleaded with prior to reading the manuscript. That’s what I think.

    Furthermore, if the cover letter was an item of true importance, how come it is not automatically passed on to the referees, who are often asked to be every bit as much arbiters of importance as the editors themselves?

  13. Torbjörn Björkman, absolutely correct. And a good observation about the link between the peers and the cover letter. Trying to lobby the editor with the most convincing message possible induces bias, and immediately makes the editor more receptive to a paper than a person who might submit a bland cover letter. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are editing services that specialize in cover letters… for a cost. The best way to judge the quality, scope, value (scientific) and interest of a paper is simply to read it. Maybe the paper mill needs to slow down rather than rely on a “sound bite” (i.e., the cover letter) to sell its image upon submission. The same applies to knowledge of the authors (an editor is more likely to be receptive to a “big name” than to an unknown). The basic principle is to eliminate as much bias and conflicts of interest as possible. What Dr. Kenar suggests is an increase in subjectivity even before peer review begins.

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