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I'm not used to writing covering letters for journal submissions, and I believe this is pretty standard in maths. However, I got into a conversation with a friend in biology, who said they expect to write about a page explaining why the paper is so great.

To me this seems an unhelpful practice: a paper should be judged by the quality of the paper, not by the quality of some other document.

We came round to the question:

How would an editor of a biology journal react to a paper submitted with a covering letter that amounted to 'here it is'?

  • I expect that in most areas the cover letter has a negligible impact. A sentence about why the paper makes a contribution might be warranted, but a page sounds excessive. Perhaps if you include the header, salutation, explanation, valediction, signature it get close to a page! – Behacad Jan 7 '17 at 18:38
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    @Behacad I'm told this is an all-out justification of why the journal should take this paper seriously, not just filling a page with nothing. – Jessica B Jan 7 '17 at 19:13
  • It's probably going to depend a lot on what kind you journal you are talking about. A very selective journal may need a good letter to be convinced that the paper has even a chance of being up to their standards of importance. A less prestigious journal may not care at all. – Buzz Jan 7 '17 at 20:15
  • For some reason I very much doubt that the cover letter affects my chances of getting accepted into let say, Science or Nature, if I have an excellent paper. – Behacad Jan 7 '17 at 21:19
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    @Behacad I'm afraid you are quite mistaken. Without a cover letter that convinces the editor of Science of Nature (who is probably not an expert on your topic) that your work is of great importance, they will not even send your manuscript out to be reviewed. – Buzz Jan 7 '17 at 23:36
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All journals I have come across their guide for authors require a cover letter. Although it's probably partially a remnant of older times, where letters and manuscripts were mailed to the journals, it does have functionality.

The cover letter is a quick way for the editor to decide if it's even worth opening the full article. For this reason, arguments on the novelty, findings, importance, challenges and perspectives of the work should be demonstrated. In practice, it might not be much different than the abstract (different structure of course), but some journals also ask for specific questions to be answered.

It also helps the editor, who might not have the same expertise as the manuscript, to decide whether it's worth sending the manuscript to external reviewers. It also saves him a few hours of work from reading the whole article to understand its value.

It also adds a degree of personal communication between the corresponding author and the editor, rather than being a automated, impersonal submission process.

Finally, I usually add sentences like "all authors have agreed to submit the manuscript in this journal" or "no conflict of interest" etc, which adds a signature under the statements.

In the case a cover letter would only say "here it is", I think the editor would probably drop it in the trash bin, unless:

  1. The title (and the abstract) conveys a subject so important that any editor could not bear not to check it out more thoroughly.
  2. The corresponding author, or one of the co-authors, is a really big name in the field, that (even if the article is not that important) the editor cannot just reject it.

So, in mathematics, maybe just saying "Here is the solution of the problem X" and everyone knows the problem and die to see the solution, then you don't need to add much. But in sciences where a problem doesn't have a name, a more detailed explanation might be required.

Lastly, the manuscript is indeed evaluated by the manuscript itself. However, a good cover letter might make the editor check your submission more thoroughly, out of the tens or hundreds of manuscripts they may receive.

I think of it as the trailer to a movie. If you like Batman and you see Batman on the title, you will check the movie a little more before deciding if it's a crap movie or not. If you see a movie is directed by let's say Spielberg (and you like him), you may do the same. But if you are unsure about the title and you don't know the actors and directors, a trailer might convince you to watch the movie.

  • Another important point is that in many journals you will get an editor that is not an expert in the field, so even if the editor wanted to evaluate the manuscript itself they couldn't. – Bitwise Jan 8 '17 at 7:45
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    @Bitwise Why does a cover letter make the editor any better off than the paper itself? If they can't judge the paper then they should have a referee do so. That's the point of a referee. – Jessica B Jan 8 '17 at 8:17
  • @JessicaB still, the editor needs to decide whether to pass the paper to review. In many biological journals this is a major hurdle. – Bitwise Jan 8 '17 at 8:26
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    @Bitwise And I'm saying it shouldn't be, if the editor is not in a position to judge the paper to that degree themselves. – Jessica B Jan 8 '17 at 8:31
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    @BioGeo Deciding not to send it to reviewers is deciding not to accept it. The introduction ought to be enough to give an editor an idea of whether it is really bad or worth a referee taking a look at. – Jessica B Jan 8 '17 at 9:41

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