I am submitting a publication to IEEE. In the course of the process, they've asked for a cover letter. Is this request typical of journals and other publications? What is expected to be on such a letter?
The practice of cover letters predates the now common online submission systems by centuries: Before online submission, papers were submitted by sending a hard copy via postal mail to the editor-in-chief (in person, not via a journal). Now it's mostly a formality, but since scholars are a traditional bunch, old habits die hard. (EDIT: Even so, if the journal demands a cover letter, you must provide one, or risk having your submission rejected for not following the guidelines.)
In principle, any information contained in a cover letter should also be put somewhere into the submission form, so those can be of some guidance. Things usually appearing in the letter include
- the title of the work;
- the type of manuscript (if the journal not only publishes standard papers but also short notes, literature review etc.);
- the name of the journal you are submitting to (since the editor might manage several journals);
- a brief summary (one or two sentences) to give the editor some idea whether the manuscript is within the scope, and which associate editor to forward it to;
- a clear statement that the manuscript has not been submitted elsewhere;
- the full contact details of the corresponding author (presumably the one signing the cover letter);
- a list of preferred or excluded referees and/or associate editors, if applicable.
Here's what I usually write (addressed to the editor-in-chief at his department address):
Dear Professor X,
please find attached our manuscript "A Note on Piffles", which we would like to submit for publication as an original research article in your journal Wuffle Review. Our main result is that all universal Piffles are strictly ascending, which proves a conjecture of Smith et al. This work has not been submitted elsewhere.
The corresponding author is
We are looking forward to hearing from you.
Yes, it's reasonably common.
The guidelines for authors typically describe what is expected of the cover letter, as well as of the paper itself.
Follow those guidelines.
If in doubt, ask an editor at the journal; but that should be rare - established journals have had so much experience that the guidelines (in my experience) tend to be pretty clear, and to pre-emptively answer all the frequently-asked question.
Note that in journals which have a high pre-review rejection rate, the cover letter is required and critical. In such journals, the editor will decide, based on the cover letter and a brief look at the work, whether to reject the paper or pass it to review. Given that their understanding of the specific field of the paper is often limited, the cover letter has the crucial role of convincing them that the paper is important and a good fit for the journal. Furthermore, it can affect their post-review decision if it is not clear-cut.
On a side note: in life sciences cover letters are the norm - I don't remember hearing of someone submit a manuscript without a cover letter.