Even great manuscripts often stand out based on the title or its contents alone. They need great cover letters.
Cover letters are an underrated part of the submission process. But they’re a valuable step to get your research noticed and published.
Truth is, most journal editors just don’t have the time to thoroughly read every submitted article in full to decide if it’s suitable for their journal. They’ll get there eventually, but they use cover letters to help them filter out the most interesting and appropriate submissions first.
Cover letters also help identify articles completely out of the journal’s scope and that would be better off getting a quick letter of rejection.
If your manuscript doesn’t have a cover letter and the 12 other articles on the editor’s desk do, it’s likely that your paper will be looked at last. Putting in that extra effort, just like on a job application, lets you sell your research, avoid quick rejections, and more likely make it to peer review.
We also have some templates so you don’t have to start from zero. Read on.
What do you put in a journal cover letter?
Your cover letter needs certain basic elements. Generally they are:
- Editor and target journal
- Salutation (Dear Dr. …)
- Indication you’re submitting your manuscript, along with its title, and the category of manuscript you’re submitting (Original Report, Review, Case Study, etc.) based on what the journal accepts
- Background information regarding your work – what is already known about the subject matter?
- What your study was
- Why you performed the study (rationale)
- Briefly, what methods you used and what your key findings were
- Why your manuscript is a great fit for this journal
- (optional, depending on the journal and on if you want to do this) Recommended reviewers
- (optional, depending on the journal) Funding information
- Closing line (Sincerely, etc.) and the name and contact details for the manuscript’s corresponding author
Those are the key elements. It’s how you express them and the quality of your message that mean the different between a dry overview and an attractive promotion of your work.
Many journals don’t have a prescribed format for the cover letter. On the other end of the spectrum are PLOS ONE’s guidelines, which give specifics on what to include, including selecting Academic Editors from its directory.
Always check the guidelines first to be sure you give the journal what it wants. Those are basics. With a grasp of those, there are many ways to polish your cover letter into a valuable sales tool for your work.
What to do and what to avoid in your journal cover letter
Most “problems with journal cover letters relate to simply not spending enough time and care on it. Or even not doing it at all. These are easily fixed if you’re a skilled English writer. If not, they’re still easily fixed with a little help.
All of the following are critical. Make sure you DO:
- Check the name of your target journal.
- Address the cover letter to the relevant person. It is not enough to simply say “Dear Editor” or “To whom it may concern.” Include the name, title and position of the editor you are addressing.
- Avoid superlatives – about the journal, yourself and your own work. It’s pretty unlikely your work is “groundbreaking” or “trailblazing,” though it may by the “first time ever” that a certain approach was taken with a certain population.
- Check the formatting. This varies by journal. It includes US vs. UK vs. Oxford English spelling, correct page numbering, use of templates, and much more.
- Get a colleague to read your cover letter before you send it.
“A typical cover letter just repeats the abstract. That’s a huge missed opportunity. You need to think of what the journal wants.
Try to tailor your manuscript’s novel and interesting points specifically to the your target journal’s aims and scope.
It may mean an extra half-hour of work for you, but if it helps get you published, isn’t it worth that small investment of time?“— Geraldine Echue, PhD, CMPP
Edanz Managing Editor
But don’t do this…
The following may not be critical, but they’re common areas that authors mess up. Sometimes they don’t know they’re doing it or they’re just trying their best. So be aware
Make sure you DON’T:
- Take shortcuts. Your cover letter is very important for getting your manuscript to peer review; give it time and attention.
- Cut and paste your abstract, or sections of it, into the cover letter. That’s low-effort and low-readability. Reword it to make it pop.
- Over-praise the editor or target journal – it’s not necessary to use such phrases as “your esteemed journal.” A manuscript will be sent for peer review based on the quality of the cover letter and study, not because you say nice things about the journal.
- Forget to use the Word (or other software’s) spellcheck and, ideally, use a tool like Grammarly and/or Hemingway to help grammar and readability. These are no substitute for a professional edit, though.
- Be overly proud about your English skills. Just like you go to the dentist to get your teeth fixed, you can hire a professional editor and subject matter expert to get your English fixed.
And two more big DOs
- DO get a professional edit or proofread if you’re not a native speaker of English or just not that great at writing.
DO have a professional write your cover letter for you if you want to save some time and make sure you got everything just as the journal wants it. The Edanz Cover Letter Development service can handle this for you.
Set phrases and common expressions
The journal letter maintains a formal tone, so there are certain stock phrases you can use and in some cases must use. As a result, there are a number of phrases which are common to cover letters.
- To our knowledge, this is the first report showing…
- We believe our findings will appeal to the readership of [target journal name].
- Please address all correspondence to:
- We look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.
“I’ve found about 60% of authors don’t submit a cover letter at all. It seems they just expect something magical to happen with their manuscript.
Journal editors struggle with this: they’re not necessarily subject-area specialists. They wonder, ‘Why is the paper important?'”— Gareth Dyke, PhD
Edanz Author Education Manager
Commonly required statements
Many journals and publishers require that all cover letters should contain the following sentences:
- We confirm that this manuscript has not been published elsewhere and is not under consideration by another journal.
- All authors have read and approved the final manuscript and agree with its submission to [target journal name].
If all authors have no competing interests, you should include a statement indicating as such:
The authors have no conflicts of interest to declare.
If an author does have competing interests, it’s a good idea to include details of these in your cover letter.
You might also include funding information:
This study was supported by a grant from the [funding body].
Other required statements
Some other potentially required information:
- Clinical trial registration database and number
- Has this manuscript been published in another language? If so, has that journal editor given permission for this submission?
- What other publications related to the same study have been published? (especially for clinical trial related manuscripts)
- Has the data in your study been presented or been published in any other format? For studies involving human subjects, was informed consent obtained? Was permission obtained from an ethics committee? Was the study carried in accordance with Declaration of Helsinki guidelines?
- Was permission obtained for the reproduction or modification of previously published figures and tables (especially for review articles).
The journal’s guidelines will typically give specific directions on which of these to include, if any. And if you have any questions, get in touch with them directly.
Journal submission tips and hacks from the experts
Most of these are plain common sense, but if you’re in a hurry, you might overlook them. Some are less commonly known.
Be personal, use the editor’s name
Do your homework. Look up the name of the Editor-in-Chief or the specific Section Editor for the journal you’re submitting to and address the letter to them directly.
Use Dear Dr. (or Professor) + their Last name. If you’re not sure of their title, Google them to see if they have a LinkedIn page, ResearchGate page, or works published in the last couple of years. If you still can’t confirm their title, use Dear Full name as shown on the journal’s webpage.
It’s like a cover letter for a job; you need to personalize your cover letter to demonstrate your interest in that particular journal, and not make it look like you’d just be happy to get your paper accepted anywhere.
You should also explain why your study will be of specific interest to the readers of the journal.
Check the Aims & Scope on the journal website to see who their target audience is and tailor your reasoning to them.
Tell them what you want to publish
This may seem obvious, but sometimes authors submit cover letters without including the title of their manuscript and what type of article it is.
This should appear in the very first paragraph of your letter and will help the editor see immediately if the topic is of interest and judge whether they have space for the article type you’re submitting for the current issue.
Even more, it will show that you thoroughly read the guidelines. If you say you’re submitting “Original Research” when the journal calls it “Research Articles”, you’re not making a very good first impression.
Summarize the highlights of your work
It’s not enough to simply include the title of your manuscript in the cover letter and hope that alone will attract the editor.
Try to keep the cover letter to one page, but always include a brief summary of your study outlining the reasons why you conducted the work, your aims, and the major results you observed. If that makes you go a bit longer, it’s not a big deal.
Don’t include statistics or a lot of data; a compelling summary of the study is sufficient. If the editor is interested, they’ll look into your manuscript more deeply for further details.
Cover letters are your chance to talk directly with the journal editor and convince them that your paper is more interesting than the next one sitting on their desk. Talk about any real-world implications of your findings or the significance of your results for the field. Don’t be too speculative or over-exaggerate your findings, but do take this important opportunity to feature the importance of your work.
Don’t forget your “must have” statements
Editors want to know that your manuscript has not been submitted elsewhere or is under consideration at another journal.
They want to know any relevant conflict of interest information and any roles the funding body played in the study.
The author instructions may or may not have explicit information on what they want you to write, but it’s good practice to state this information upfront. This way, the editor doesn’t have to dig through the manuscript to know if you’ve met the basic ethical requirements for publication.
See it in action: Edanz video on writing cover letters
We laid out the basics of a cover letter in this video.
And if you don’t want to start with a blank document…
Get a cover letter template
It’s all easier said than done, right?
Download a template to plug-and-play your text.
“When I became a journal editor, I really learned how important cover letters are. We need them to learn more about submissions and to make more informed decisions on whether to send manuscripts out for peer review.
As a journal editor, I greatly appreciate a carefully written cover letter; it saves me time and it shows me the authors really care.
It also helps with reviewer selections … something I rarely have time to do.”— Gareth Dyke, PhD
Edanz Author Education Manager
All set to do your cover letter? Now go find a forever home for your manuscript and tell them why they’re the perfect fit for you.
Want to dig deeper into the publication process, soup to nuts, ideas to publication? Take simple, expert-designed courses to walk you through it all, at the Edanz My Learning Lab.