Writing Cover Letters for Scientific Manuscripts
Release Date: September 29, 2012
Category: Scientific Writing
Key Points Summary
- Always submit an accompanying cover letter with every manuscript.
- Some journals have very specific requirements for information to provide in the cover letter, and these are usually stated in the journal’s instructions to authors. Make sure your cover letter includes any journal-required elements.
- Strong cover letters tell journal editors why they should publish your manuscript in their journals.
- Cover letters should be succinct and focus on the importance and novelty of your findings, as well as how they relate to the scope of your target journal.
After the hard work of perfecting your manuscript and selecting a target journal, one more task remains before submission: writing a cover letter. The cover letter is an important document that must do more than tell the editor that you are submitting your manuscript for consideration. It should capture the editor’s attention, provide information about the novelty and importance of your findings, and indicate that all authors have approved of the submission and the manuscript has not been submitted to more than one journal concurrently.
Strong cover letters not only introduce your manuscript – they offer an important opportunity to convince journal editors to consider your manuscript for publication.
Determine Your Target Journal’s Requirements
Before you begin, check your target journal’s author instructions for any cover letter requirements, such as certain specifically worded statements. No matter what else you decide to include, always make sure that your cover letter contains any required information and statements described in your target journal’s author instructions.
Develop an Outline for the Cover Letter
In addition to any information and statements required by your target journal, every cover letter should contain the following elements:
- An introduction stating the title of the manuscript and the journal to which you are submitting.
- The reason why your study is important and relevant to the journal’s readership or field.
- The question your research answers.
- Your major experimental results and overall findings.
- The most important conclusions that can be drawn from your research.
- A statement that the manuscript has not been published and is not under consideration for publication in any other journal
- A statement that all authors approved the manuscript and its submission to the journal.
- Any other details that will encourage the editor to send your manuscript for review.
Write one or more sentences to address each of these points. You will revise and polish these sentences to complete your cover letter.
Write the Body of the Cover Letter
Open your cover letter with a sentence or two explaining why you are writing, the title of your manuscript, and the title of the journal.
- Example: “I am writing to submit our manuscript entitled, “Taking antioxidants plus zinc reduces the risk of advanced age-related macular degeneration for high-risk patients,” for consideration for publication in Archives of Ophthalmology.”
Briefly state the background for the problem or question your research answers. The focus of the paragraph is to explain why your research was needed and clearly state the question your research answers. Clearly and concisely explain your results, findings, and conclusions.
To keep your cover letter concise, limit this explanation to one or two brief paragraphs. You can also include a sentence or two that links your findings to the interests of the journal’s readership, if appropriate. It may be helpful to review your abstract to stay focused on your most important results and conclusions.
- Example: “Because our findings could be applied in the clinic right away, they are likely to be of great interest to the vision scientists, researchers, clinicians, and trainees who read your journal.”
As you write this explanation, think in terms of “how will my manuscript benefit the journal?” The journal editor’s goal is to publish important, novel findings that are within the journal’s scope and of interest to its readership. Your goal is to show the editor how your manuscript meets these criteria. Such manuscripts will be highly referenced, which will increase the impact factor of the journal. Without exaggerating, explain the novelty, relevance, and interest of your findings to researchers who read that journal.
After describing your research and findings, include a paragraph with any journal-required statements. If the findings in the manuscript have been presented at a scientific meeting, include that information in this paragraph. This paragraph should also include statements about exclusivity and author approval for submission.
- Example: “This manuscript describes original work and is not under consideration by any other journal. All authors approved the manuscript and this submission.”
In your last paragraph, thank the editor for his or her consideration.
- Example: “Thank you for receiving our manuscript and considering it for review. We appreciate your time and look forward to your response.”
Add Basic Letter Elements
Cover letters follow the same simple format as all letters. Make sure your cover letter includes the following basic letter elements:
- Addressee name and mailing address.
- Salutation (such as “Dear Dr. Smith:” or “Dear Editor:”).
- Body of the letter.
- Closing (such as “Kind regards,” or “Thank you,”).
- Signature block (author’s signature, typed name and highest degree, institution, and mailing address).
- Enclosure designation (“Enclosure” to indicate your manuscript is included with the cover letter).
Cover letters are often submitted electronically in an e-mail message. E-mail cover letters may not contain more formal letter elements like the date and address block.
Revise the Cover Letter
Read through your cover letter several times to proofread and revise the text for clarity and brevity. Remove any stray points or sentences that do not directly relate to the purpose, major results, and most important findings and conclusions of your study. As you revise the cover letter, ask yourself if the impact, novelty, and relevance of your findings are clear. Rewrite any sentences that are very long, do not make your point clearly, or are cluttered with too many details.
Cover letters should not exceed one page unless absolutely necessary. If you write a cover letter that is longer than one page, think carefully about how it can be shortened.
As you revise the cover letter, proofread for the same basic grammar and construction issues you would look for when revising your manuscript.
- Eliminate unnecessary or redundant phrases like “in order to” and “may have the potential to.”
- Make sure the letter is written in plain English. Remove any jargon and define all abbreviations at first use.
- Proofread for spelling and grammar errors.
During your review, read the cover letter at least once to ensure you avoid the following:
- Statements that exaggerate or overstate results
- Conclusions that are not supported by the data reported in the manuscript.
- Sentences repeated word-for-word from the manuscript text.
- Too many technical details.
Always complete a final check to confirm that your cover letter includes all elements required by your target journal.
More Resources for Writing Cover Letters
Scientific Writing Workshops
If you like our articles, try our workshops! Our articles are based on the material from our scientific writing workshops, which cover these and many other topics more thoroughly, with more examples and discussion.
We offer on-site workshops for your event or organization, and also host workshops that individual participants can attend. Our on-site scientific writing workshops can range from 1-2 hours to several days in length. We can tailor the length to suit your needs, and we can deliver a writing workshop as a stand-alone activity or as part of scheduled meetings.
Our scientific writing workshops consistently receive high praise from participants including graduate students, post-docs, and faculty in diverse fields. Please see our scientific writing workshop page for details.
If you found this article helpful or if there is a topic you want us to address in a future article, please use our online comment submission form, or contact us directly. Your comments and suggestions are valuable! Click here to return to our scientific editing article library.
It may seem obvious, but a journal editor's first serious impression of a submitted manuscript lies not only with the article title but also, rather simply, with the cover letter. The cover letter is your first "formal" interaction with a journal, and it embodies a request, so to speak, to consider your article for publication. But it also provides you with an excellent opportunity to present the significance of your scientific contribution.
I've worked as an editor for primary research and review manuscripts alike, and despite their many similarities, there are distinctions to writing the cover letter for each. Here are some helpful tips for writing a suitable cover letter for Cell Press scientific journals.
Cover letter basics: What do we look for?
1. Let's start with content. We look for letters that start by succinctly explaining what was previously known in a given field and then state the authors' motivation for wishing to publish. Following that, the conceptual advance, timeliness, and novelty should be immediately conveyed. What sets apart this scientific contribution? What is the significance of the work, and where does the article lead us? Will this research be of interest to a broad readership?
2. Get to the point. We want a concise letter that quickly gets to the main point and the take-home message; this sets the stage for your manuscript. Succinctly explain the topic of discussion, and quickly convey the key conclusions. Do not submit a long dissertation. Generally, one page suffices and is preferred.
3. Do not rehash the abstract of the paper. Copying and pasting the abstract into your cover letter verbatim is a big no-no. Instead, we seek a synthesis of the key points—possibly, and depending on style, the summary might resemble a brief story pitch in an elevator! But importantly, you need to venture beyond the summary: write a sentence that takes you further than the obvious conclusions. How does the content move the field forward? Are the implications far-reaching?
4. Get excited! Authors' excitement about their scientific contributions can undoubtedly inspire the editor who's reading the cover letter. Overall, the sentiment of "you're gonna love reading this paper!" should seep through—make that happen!
5. Include a wish list of reviewers. Relevant information on potential reviewers (including their field of expertise) can be included and is definitely a plus, as it can be quite helpful to the editor. By contrast, please don't provide a long list of excluded reviewers (three maximum), and most certainly do not suggest excluding authors from entire continents on the map! Also, save the editor some time by specifying which author should be the lead contact, and indicate their affiliation.
6. Keep it simple ... and humble. In terms of style, consider sincerity and simplicity. The letter should be humble and forthcoming; don't be ostentatious or florid. Claims of priority, if not fully supported, tend to be a turnoff. In addition, statements indicating that the article or related findings have been presented at X number of conferences and are "tremendously" well received by the scientific community—or otherwise—do not add much to the cover letter. They might instead suggest right off the bat that a lot of cooing and convincing of the journal editor will be required. So let the "science" speak for itself. Also, a statement declaring that the article is original and isn't being considered elsewhere can only add to your cause!
7. Proofread your letter by checking the spelling, grammar, and syntax. A well-written letter indicates that you take your submission seriously and that you are an author who pays attention to detail.
8. Check every detail. Avoid mistakes such as directing the cover letter to the editor(s) of a different journal, or to a different journal altogether. This might suggest that you've submitted your article elsewhere, that it might have been poorly received, and perhaps that the Cell Press journal you're submitting to isn't your first choice. It could also suggest that you don't pay sufficient attention to detail. Sadly, these sorts of errors continue to surprise me and happen more often than I would like.
The cover letter: Primary research or Trends reviews?
There are subtle differences in writing a cover letter for a primary research journal versus a reviews journal, such as the Trends journals at Cell Press.
Many different article formats exist within both the primary research journals and the Trends journals. Make sure it's very clear which type of format you're submitting. As the Editor of Trends in Molecular Medicine, I find that this detail is not always specified by the author(s) in the cover letter. Knowing what type of manuscript you are submitting can help you fully nail down the cover letter in terms of the intent, scope, and take-home message of the article. It also recapitulates your prior agreement with the editor regarding article format: is it a review or an opinion piece?
Along these lines, the content of your cover letter will differ for a review or opinion piece as opposed to an original research contribution. For both, the timeliness and novelty need to strongly come across. However, for a research article, the specific advance relative to previous experimental findings needs to be clearly indicated. For a Trends article, the synthesis and conceptual advance should be particularly stated in terms of what is new and has been trending in the field for the last one to five years. For an opinion piece, take a strong and novel stance on a hypothesis or idea. Projecting into the future, beyond the main take-home message of the paper, is also a strong consideration for Trends articles.
I recommend that you familiarize yourself with the journal that you are submitting to—browse through the journal website and do your homework on author guidelines and the scope of the journal prior to submission! In the case of Trends journals, know who the editor is. Each Trends journal is run by a single editor, so beginning your cover letter with "Dear Madam" when the editor is male, or "Dear Sir" when the editor is female, may not create a favorable impression. While such mistakes are usually overruled by the content and quality of the science, it certainly helps to have your cover letter completely in order!
Keep on writing—we love hearing from you and receiving your submissions! For more tips on writing cover letters for scientific manuscripts, check out this page. Also read more from Cell Press Editor in Chief Emilie Marcus on when—and when not—to submit your paper.