Let the manuscript speak! Cover letters have outlived their purpose

By Elva Robinson


I vividly remember sitting frozen, hands poised over the keyboard, desperately seeking the words for my first ever cover letter. The typed letters on the screen in front of me became meaningless collections of pixels. There seemed to be one magic constellation of pixels that I was pursuing – that magic constellation forming the words that would transport my manuscript through to peer review at Nature …. all other constellations would result in a bounce.

Given that I was putting this amount of pressure on myself, it’s a wonder I ever got the letter written, and perhaps even more surprising that the letter served its purpose – though I suspect what I do not remember so clearly are the extensive edits from my supervisors. Now, when I come to write a cover letter I am not so much frozen in fear, as mildly annoyed that I must jump through yet another hurdle before submission. I have done (my part of) the research, (co/)written the paper, chosen keywords, followed the journal’s exacting formatting requirements, re-made the figures, checked supplementary information, metadata etc, checked addresses for co-authors, considered possible cover photos, compiled a list of suitable reviewers, written a lay summary, a 140 character summary, a short version of the title etc., etc. It is quite a long enough process – and now, I must also write a letter to explain why the editor should consider my work.

The reason I find this annoying is not simply that it is another task on the route to submission, it is that as an editor myself, I receive cover letters, and as a result my perception of their contribution to the publishing process has changed drastically. The majority of cover letters I receive say something along the lines of “My co-authors and I have done a great study. We think it fits your journal. We think it is really interesting and important, and we think lots of other people will agree with us.” But of course the authors think this – or at least, want me, the editor, to think this! That is why they have submitted it to this journal. My job, as editor, is not to take the authors’ word for it, and nor is it to assess how good the author is at blowing their own trumpet (something that comes more easily to some than others), but rather to make an assessment for myself of whether the paper fits the journal and has sufficient potential for value and relevance that it is worth requesting that two or more colleagues invest their time and review it in detail. To make this decision, I will read the abstract and skim the whole paper (I will later read it more fully, if I send it to review). I don’t need the authors’ paraphrasing of the abstract and their assertions of its value to make this decision – I need the actual content of the paper.

A while ago, I received a cover letter that, instead of the usual content, simply stated “My co-authors and I are submitting our paper ‘Title’ to your journal. Sincerely, X”. Accidentally sending such a cover letter would have been the stuff of nightmare for that PhD-student-me.  But this exceedingly brief cover letter did not change my processing of the associated manuscript. I assessed it in the same way I would any other and, as it was clearly relevant to the journal and appeared to make a valid contribution to the field, I sent it for review – and those authors saved themselves the time and effort of writing a cover letter worth the name. So, while I don’t yet recommend to my students that they dispense with cover letter content (justifying ones work with respect to a particular field can be a useful exercise – if it is very difficult to do, then the journal choice is probably wrong), I certainly don’t encouraging them to let it take undue levels of importance in their minds.

By now you, as the reader, have probably thought of several unusual circumstances in which a cover letter is indispensable. Yes, I have come across a few such instances as an editor. Sometimes a paper may re-use a published dataset for a novel purpose, and the authors wish to make the novelty clear and avoid any whiff of self-plagiarism. Sometimes a paper has an unusual genesis, for example I handled a paper that was the combined output of 2 groups who independently began work on the same topic, discovered the convergence before submission and decided to publish both experiments together. Here the cover letter gave context to the slightly unusual methods section. But such instances are very rare, and could easily be handled with an optional ‘any other relevant information’ box in the submission system. For the majority of submissions, this box would be empty, and the lack of a required cover letter would save the time of authors in preparing the document, and editors in handling it. Not a lot of time per manuscript, but totaled over all manuscripts written or handled in an academic career… that has to be worth something.

I recommend that journal editors should question the role of the ‘cover letter’. Is it simply a hang-over from the age of physically posting manuscripts to the editor in an envelope – for which a cover letter was necessary if for no other reason than to give the address and affiliation of the corresponding author – or is there really any value added? I think it is time to let the cover letter go.

Author biography: I study the organisation of social animal groups. In particular, I am interested in identifying the simple behavioural rules followed by individuals in a social group, and how these interact and combine to produce effective group-level behaviours. I use ant colonies as my primary model system. I combine fieldwork on ant colonies in the wild, computer simulations of theoretical ant colonies, and also detailed behavioural experiments. Interests include: foraging organisation; communication networks; collective decision-making; division of labour; invasive species; collective behavioural syndromes; distributed colony organisation (polydomy); responses of social systems to change.  I am a Senior Lecturer in Ecology at the University of York, UK.

Image caption/credit: Mouse-over text for accessibility: Lap-top computer, screen showing words Dear Editor; hands on keyboard. Photograph by Steve Almond, used with permission

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