Sunday, May 11, 2008

To Whom It May Concern:

"I have to write a letter," Rachel said upon returning to the dorm several years ago. She withdrew a paper that described the assignment. "Given an audience that has donated money to university in years past, write a persuasive letter encouraging them to give a greater amount this year."

"Huh," Elle and I said, looking at each other. I can't remember how we came up with the letter - if Elle drafted the entire message or if we worked collaboratively. But we came up with the following:

Dear You,

You gave money last year. Good job! You should give again this year. That'd be great - thanks.


I started to wonder after Friend and I discussed it about whether my cover letters to journal editors read much the same way.

Dear Editor,

Here's a paper I wrote. You should put it in your journal. That'd be great - thanks.



"I need examples," I told Friend and she mentioned she had a couple at work. "I wonder if I've been doing it wrong," I mused.

But I thought of people who enjoyed mentoring and came up with the resident expert on most everything. PhysioProf offered the following.
The key is to explain the following items (in order):
(1) a statement of an important open issue in the field;
(2) a statement of how you have addressed this issue methodologically;
(3) a statement of what results you have obtained;
(4) a statement of how these results clarify the open issue;
(5) a statement of what is important about your results and the scope of the audience that will be interested.

So I need to make a bunch of statements about a bunch of stuff. Which is all true and good and lovely, I'm sure, but I need examples! While I talked to Mom earlier tonight (we're both moody and tired) and Friend did something science-related in her lab, I glanced through several pages she had filed and immediately saw an easy pattern to follow.

Editor's Address (which seems weird since these are emailed, but OK)


Dear You:

Please find attached a manuscript entitled "This Cool Thing I Call My Paper," submitted by me, my important boss's name, and my important collaborators' names. (I think the idea here is that the editor should be pleased and/or impressed by the people I work with since I definitely don't cut it. Good to know!) I think Editor Joe would be appropriate for this submission.

Let me give you a bit of background about this topic. I'm going to do that for about a paragraph, sometimes with relevant references, sometimes by noting what I or my lab have already done in the past. This should, I think, convince you that the overall topic is important. Because it really is. Honest.

Now let's talk about this paper specifically. We present for the first time evidence that (1) first piece of cool knowledge; (2) second bit of nifty results; (3) final gem of scientific glory. I separated them into a numbered list so they'll be easy for you to follow. I'm nice like that.

These results are significant because they answer some question or clarify some issue. A given audience - hopefully the same one that reads this journal - will so totally care about this. Trust me. It'll be super-awesome. Thank you.


My contact information

So that's what I think I know. Given that I usually just throw something in that little box when I'm submitting a paper, I've usually hit most of the high points. But I wondered if you have hints or advice you'd like to share. If so, you should leave a comment. That'd be great - thanks.

P.S. Richard summoned the knowledge of the Nature Network on this topic so if you don't read him already (which, honestly, you probably should - he's fantastic), pop over for additional information.


bk said...

So that's what I'm doing wrong. My cover letters along the lines of

Dear Editor

This is earth-shattering work and if you don't publish it forthwith you must be an idiot.



aren't working.

post-doc said...

If I were an editor, I'd publish your earth-shattering work. Because I think your letter is awesome and I'd hate to be an idiot.

PhysioProf said...

Don't overestimate the importance of cover letters. My experience is that editors rely much more heavily on the abstract of the paper to assess whether to send it out for review than the cover letter.

And reviewers, of course, never see the cover letter. Your goal with the editor at the outset is simply to convince her to send your paper out for review. Once that has occurred, the cover letter doesn't mean jack shit.

Much more important to write effectively is the rebuttal to reviewer concerns after review.

PhysioProf said...

Oh, by the way, thank you for acknowledging that I am, indeed, an expert on most everything. I have expended much effort on cultivating my deep and broad expertise, and it is gratifying to see it recognized.

CJR said...

I'm a great fan of keeping things short. All the editor really wants to know is: will the subject of this paper be of interest to the readers of the journal? I usually write something along the lines of:

this paper looks at x, which is a long standing problem/has recently been recognised as an important problem in this field. We show y, which have implications z and will therefore be of considerable interest to readers of your journal.

Making your conclusions sound imporant and relevent is the key, I think. Implying that you couldn't think of a more appropriate journal to publish your masterwork in can never hurt your cause...

post-doc said...

I agree with your assessment that it's not that important to have an exquisite cover letter. But it falls in the category if 'if you're going to do it, might as well do it well,' especially for those of us who aren't acquainted with a given editor. Rebuttal letters are much more easily drafted and edited - in my opinion - given that the focus is already given. (Though I do have to go back and edit out the snippy comments that sneak in. But I'm always careful to do that.)

And, sure. You're welcome for the 'expert' line. We can say I was smirking when I wrote that. Good.

That's an excellent point - journal selection and evidence that you've done it right have always seemed important to me too. And I'm unfortunately unable to be very concise about much of anything. But I am working on it.

maxine said...

Hello, I am from Nature and have been directed here by the aforementioned Richard G.

Here is the Nature advice, from its Guide to Authors:
"Submissions should be accompanied by a cover letter stating briefly why the conclusion is an important scientific advance and the author’s case for the work being published in Nature rather than in a specialist journal. Authors are strongly encouraged to attempt two 100-word summaries, one to encapsulate the significance of the work for readers of Nature (mainly scientists or those in scientifically related professions); and the other to explain the conclusions at an understandable level for the general public. The cover letter should also specify the number of words in the text of the paper, the number of display items (figures and tables), the number of attachments (manuscript, figures, Supplementary Information if any, supporting mansucripts), and their formats."

This paragraph is extracted from a web page called “Getting published in Nature”,, which contains quite a lot of useful context for those thinking of submitting, eg proportion of ms submitted and published.
Hope it helps. At Nature we aren't interested in that bit about the important collaborators, etc, we like cover letters to cut to the chase (and be brief), state the finding, say why it's important (no hype please), confirm to us that you are within-format, suggest and exclude referees. You don't need to tell us we are nice;-)

CAE said...

A friend of mine once accidentally folded her credit card up in the cover letter for a job application. She didn't get an interview, leading her to wonder whether cash would have been better.

Maxine, any comments on how this would transfer to a manuscript submission?!

maxine said...

Posted submissions often used to contain used fivers (or $5 bills) as well as manuscripts, until we introduced a web-based tracking system, keeping impoverished editors in footwear. Unfortunately, banks will not cash a scanned note uploaded as Supplementary Information,so editors now have to wear Crocs or bare feet. We are now considering opening a Pay Pal account, as we keep getting emails from them saying someone is trying to give us $1,000,000.

Kate said...

Physioprof said: Much more important to write effectively is the rebuttal to reviewer concerns after review.

Ooh! I want advice on that.

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