Writing a journal article

Cover letter

Cover letters have become quite important in some academic disciplines. Ask around in your discipline how common it is for papers to be rejected without peer review. If that is a common phenomenon, this suggests that editors themselves have a lot of power – they might decide that a lot of papers don’t even go for peer review. Rejections without peer review tend to be quick, but are frustrating because you get virtually no feedback why your paper was rejected.

Cover letters are intended to convince the editors that they should send the paper out for peer review. If you are dealing with a journal that sends almost everything out for peer review, a minimalistic cover letter is fine. But if you are dealing with journals that reject a lot of work without peer review, you need to explain why your particular paper is worth considering.

In a (more than minimalistic) cover letter, you might want to explain:

  • That you’re submitting the work to the journal for consideration for publication;
  • Why the work is new, exciting and important;
  • Why you think the particular journal is suitable;
  • Any additional information that is important to the particular journal.

Many journals have additional specific requirements for their cover letters. For example, they may require a statement that all co-authors have read the manuscript and agree to its submission; or they may ask you to suggest potential referees. Check the journal’s instructions for authors to make sure you follow the instructions.

In some cases, it’s a good idea to contact the editor by email before you submit your paper to ask if the paper might be suitable for a journal. This is not something that all journals are happy with, but some actually encourage such pre-submission enquiries. If you do write a pre-submission enquiry, it’s a good idea to keep it brief; send the abstract, and maybe a key figure; and explain why you think it might be suitable for a particular journal. Make sure you specifically ask whether the editor thinks the work may be suitable for the particular journal. Sometimes editors get back to you with a helpful hint: for example, they might say that your work sounds interesting, but needs to have a clearer international relevance for it to be considered. If that’s the case, you already know that there’s something you should work on some more before even submitting to that particular journal.

Personally, I think a cover letter should be about one page, and if possible, it looks better if you write it on the official letterhead of your institution.

Also see other entries under THE PROCESS OF PUBLISHING.

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