Writing a Cover Letter to a Journal

by Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM

The Scholarship of Public Health addresses topics relevant to scientific publishing, dissemination of evidence and best practices, and the education of current and future professionals. This column presents some considerations and best practices for finding time to produce scholarship in the form of a manuscript or presentation. This post explains how to write a cover letter to a scientific journal.

writing a cover letter to a journalWriting a manuscript for publication can be time-consuming and taxing work. However, once you have a manuscript ready for submission to a journal, there is still work to be done. First, you need to identify a journal to submit the manuscript to, which I’ve covered in detail before. Second, you’ll want to craft a cover letter to bring the manuscript to the editor’s attention and (hopefully) get it advanced to peer review. The cover letter is much more important than many authors realize and can play a crucial role in convincing the editor-in-chief that your manuscript warrants further consideration. As such, make sure that you give the cover letter the attention that it deserves.

The cover letter has a few formulaic pieces, and a good template (such as this one by Ben Mudrak at American Journal Experts) can make your life considerably easier. Regardless of the style you use, you’ll want to include the title of the manuscript and the authors, along with statements about the originality of the content, human subjects approvals (if appropriate), and the fact that it has not been published elsewhere. If there are reviewers who should not review the manuscript (ie, those who have a conflict of interest with the content of the manuscript), you can list them in the cover letter with a brief rationale (#protip: “He/she is a jerk” is not sufficient). Some journals might also request that you suggest reviewers, especially when the article is in a very specific or highly technical area. If so, you can list them with their email addresses and a short rationale.

The most important components of the cover letter deal with the appropriateness of the content for the journal and the importance of the work. The former can often be addressed with information you glean from the scope or mission of the journal, or the “about the journal” webpage. You should also browse the last year or so of the journal’s table of contents to see if it is publishing articles on your topic. Armed with that information, you can make a case that your article falls within the scope of the journal and that the journal hasn’t published anything like your manuscript recently. For the importance of the work, you should state clearly the unique aspects of the content or the topic. Avoid overly boastful language (eg, “groundbreaking”) or language that is overly declarative (eg, “no one has ever examined”), unless you can objectively prove it (ie, it really is the first paper on a topic). That said, this isn’t the place to be shy or modest. For example, if you are reporting the effects of a successful intervention and observed larger effects than others in the field, it’s not out of line to point that fact out. This is especially important in cases where the topic might be far from the editor’s expertise or in a journal that publishes on a broad array of topics (like the Journal of Public Health Management & Practice). This is one of the best places to advocate for your manuscript, so take full advantage of the opportunity.

Justin B. Moore, PhD, MS, FACSM, is the Associate Editor of the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice and an Associate Professor in the Department of Implementation Science of the Wake Forest School of Medicine at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC, USA. Follow him at Twitter and Instagram. [Full Bio]

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