How to write a cover letter

Published in Protocols & Methods

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Part one of our 3-part series on the dos and don’ts of communicating with editors and reviewers.

A good cover letter is a crucial part of the manuscript submission package to Nature Methods. It is not simply an archaic form of communication that is becoming obsolete in a digital world; rather, it should be viewed as an opportunity to convey many important pieces of information about a paper to the editors.

Manuscripts submitted to Nature Methods must first pass an editorial evaluation stage, but as professional editors, we are not experts in every scientific field that the journal covers. Providing context for the paper in a cover letter not only can help the editors reach a quicker decision but also can sometimes tip the balance in favor of sending a borderline paper out for peer review.

Here are some practical tips for potential authors.

The DOs:

  • Do give a brief, largely non-technical summary of the method. Explain how it will have an impact and why the method and its applications will be interesting to a broad biological audience. This can include more forward-looking information about potential future applications that authors may be reticent to share with reviewers or readers of their manuscript. Such a summary is especially crucial for highly technical papers, where the chance that the advance may not be fully appreciated by the editors is often higher.
  • Do put the work in context. Briefly explain the novelty and the specific advances over previous work but be realistic about what the method can and cannot achieve. Many authors are hesitant to compare their work to previous methods for fear that it will appear to reviewers that they are putting down the contributions of other researchers. But editors may not be aware of the nuances of various approaches to address a methodological problem and are more likely to reject a paper without peer review when the advance over previous work is not clear. Authors should not hesitate to discuss freely in the cover letter why they believe method is an advance (most ideally, backed up with strong performance characteristics in the manuscript!).
  • Do suggest referees. If the editors decide to send the paper for peer review, providing a list of potential referees, their email addresses, and a very short description of their expertise, can help the editor assign referees more rapidly. Of course, whether the editor decides to use any of the suggested referees is up to him or her. This is also the place to list researchers that you believe should be excluded from reviewing the paper. (Please note that the names of excluded reviewers should also be included in the relevant field of the online submission form.) The editors will honor your exclusion list as long as you don’t exclude more than five people; if you exclude everyone relevant in a scientific field such that the review process will not be productive or fair, the editor may ask you to shorten the list.
  • Do tell us about any related work from your group under consideration or in press elsewhere. Explain how it relates, and include copies of the related manuscripts with your submission.
  • Do mention any unusual circumstances. For example, known competition with another group’s paper, co-submission to Nature Methods planned with another group, or co-submission of a related results paper to another NPG journal, etc.
  • Do mention if you have previously discussed the work with an editor. As editors, we meet a lot of researchers at conferences and lab visits and many papers are pitched to us. A brief mention of when and where such a conversation occurred can help jog the memory of why we invited the authors to submit it in the first place.

The DON’Ts:

  • Don’t simply reiterate that you have submitted a paper to us and/or copy and paste the title and abstract of the paper. The cover letter should be viewed as an opportunity to present useful meta-information about the paper, and not tossed off simply as a submission requirement.
  • Don’t go on for pages about what the paper is about and summarize all of your results. The editor will always read the paper itself so long cover letters are usually redundant. A one-page cover letter in almost all cases is sufficient.
  • Don’t use highly technical jargon and acronyms. Explaining the advance in a general manner can go a long way in helping the editors reach a quicker decision; cover letters that are largely unreadable are of no help to the editors.
  • Don’t overhype or over-interpret. While a description of why the method will advance the field is definitely appreciated, obvious overstatements about the impact or reach of the work do not help and can even reflect poorly on the authors’ judgment of the needs of a field.
  • Don’t assume that going on about your scientific reputation or endorsements from others in the field will sway us. This is not pertinent to our editorial decision. Our decisions are based on whether we think the paper will be a good editorial fit for the journal, not on the laurels of the authors or because someone important in the field suggested that they submit the work to Nature Methods

And finally, a minor editorial pet peeve:

  • Don’t address your cover letter to “Dear Sir.” This is antiquated language, not to mention often incorrect, given that two-thirds of Nature Methods’ editors are women. Stick to the gender-neutral “Dear Editor” in cases where you are not addressing a specific editor.

Don’t miss parts 2 and 3 of this series of posts covering rebuttal letters and appeal letters. We encourage questions, comments and feedback below. The editors will do their best to answer any questions you have.

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