A Question about Article Cover Letters


A graduate student writes in with a question about submitting articles to journals:

Submission portals at journals sometimes mention cover letters, or provide room for one to write a note to the editor within the submission portal. But is this done when first submitting, or only when revising? And if so, what do authors tend to write there? Occasionally it seems like an artifact of the fact that publishing houses also publish other journals that are in fields other than philosophy and have submission sites that share the same setup, but like many other aspects of publishing, it may also just be one of those aspects of the process that is important and yet obscure to us graduate students. Any clarification is greatly appreciated! 

Authors, what, if anything, do you put in your cover letters? And editors, does it matter?

illustration by Mark Powell

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Englander
Englander
2 years ago

I usually just put in some thanks, and a promise to format correctly if accepted.

In some cases, say if my paper is responding to a recent one in that journal, or there is some other reason why I’ve chosen that journal in particular, I might mention that.Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
Reply to  Englander
2 years ago

On the revisions, some journals want something like a narrative showing what you changed and didn’t change in light of referee comments. As an editor, I always liked reading these because it was easier than trying to compare versions and see if anything happened. (Though, in Word, it’s not so hard with markup.) Also pretty awesome how much time and thought some authors put into their revisions, and the narrative helps show that. If the journal requires that, you have to do it, but I’d consider doing it even if they don’t: you might make a good impression on the editor vis-a-vis your conscientiousness. But, on a first submission, I think the upside is a lot lower.Report

Thomas
Thomas
2 years ago

I’m just another grad student so I don’t have , but in the few papers I’ve submitted I used the cover letter to explain to the editor why exactly I thought my paper was a good fit for this journal in particular. I’m guessing this is needed because at times an editor of a journal isn’t aware of every single debate that may be relevant for publication in their journal, and a cover letter is an ideal place to convince the editor why they should publish your paper.

In the letter for a resubmission I explained my take of the reviewers’ comments and how I incorporated their comments into the paper to improve its quality.

This tactic is mostly based on things I found online about what to put in the cover letters, and I haven’t gotten a desk rejection, so I guess that’s a positive thing? Perhaps more experienced authors will have better tips.Report

Beth
Beth
2 years ago

The BJPS doesn’t require a cover letter, despite our very inflexible online submission system asking for one. And the majority of our submissions don’t include cover letters.

Other philosophy journals I’ve worked on didn’t required a letter either. I suspect they’re of use only in journals that don’t have an online submission system already collecting all the relevant information, or journals that ask authors to suggest qualified referees (mostly, science journals) .Report

David Beard
David Beard
2 years ago

The same portals are sometimes used to resubmit, and a cover letter makes a huge difference in the resubmission. I don’t know that it would be worth the effort to create a portal that creates a slot for resubmit letters only.

Cover letters are helpful for directing submission for section editors, special or thematic issue editors.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  David Beard
2 years ago

I don’t think it’s true that cover letters many any difference at resubmission. Letters are distinct from the (usually required) document outlining how the author has responded to the reviewers. That document matters. The letter doesn’t.Report

David Beard
David Beard
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

Huh. The reply to the reviewers is not in the cover letter? Interesting.Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
Reply to  David Beard
2 years ago

There may be exceptions where the reply is in the letter. I’m not thinking of any but there’s a lot of journals. In any case, we agree on the substantive issue: that document matters a great deal whether it is the letter or a different document.Report

Eric Winsberg
Eric Winsberg
Reply to  Neil Levy
2 years ago

yeah, I think the usual think I am used to is that the cover letter and the response to refs are separate documents that need to be uploaded (or at least entered into a little box).Report

Neil Levy
Neil Levy
2 years ago

I always write the briefest of cover letters as an author, because editorial offices (not editors) sometimes insist. I dutifully read them as an editor, but the content has mattered perhaps once in the many hundreds of submissions I’ve handled. If there’s something you want to alert the editor to (perhaps there is someone who should not be invited to review), then write a letter. Otherwise, I’d prefer you didn’t and that joirnals make them explicitly optional.Report

Chris Buford
Chris Buford
2 years ago

I have attached my post entitled ‘Post’. Thank you in advance for the consideration.Report

M
M
Reply to  Chris Buford
2 years ago

Thank you for submitting your post “Post”. We are afraid that, at this point, it cannot be accepted for publication. We would, however, consider a resubmission which takes into account the comments by our two reviewers (see below). Please include in your resubmission a cover letter indicating how you have revised your post in reaction to reviewers comments.
********
Referee 1: This has the potential to become a great post! Sections 2 and 3 in particular are really promising and should be elaborated substantially.
Referee 2: I am in general really very sceptical about the prospects of turning this draft into a post worth publishing. But the author is welcome to try, of course. However, sections 2 and 3 definitely need to go. There is nothing to salvage here.Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
2 years ago

For an initial submission, I have never written anything more lengthy or detailed than:

“To the Editor of X, Thank you for considering my manuscript, “TITLE”, for possible publication in JOURNAL. Best wishes, MYNAME.”

For a revise and resubmit, I have never written anything more (In the cover letter section!) than:

“To the Editor of X, Thank you for considering a revised version of my manuscript, “TITLE”, for possible publication in JOURNAL. The original manuscript identification number is LETTERNUMBER. Best wishes, MYNAME.”Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
2 years ago

I’m not sure I’ve ever written a cover letter for a journal submission… maybe back in the pre-online-submission era?Report

Eric Winsberg
Eric Winsberg
Reply to  David Wallace
2 years ago

Really? I feel like I have to write them all the time for the journals I submit to. I assume its just a quirk of the software and usually just write “Dear Editors, thank you in advance for considering my submission entitled ‘Why David Wallace must be wrong about cover letters’.”Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
Reply to  Eric Winsberg
2 years ago

It’s genuinely possible that I’ve just written them on autopilot and didn’t remember!Report

Jordan
Jordan
2 years ago

I’ve used that space before to attempt to justify the length of an article when it comes in over the suggested word count.Report

nicholesuomi
Reply to  Jordan
2 years ago

How has this worked out for you?Report

David L Barack
David L Barack
2 years ago

I write one page cover letters on letterhead for every article I submit. They usually go something like this: “Dear editors at X, Paragraph 1. Problem. P2. My contribution. P3. Who would be interested in your readership and why. Signed, DLB’. For my neuroscience articles, I will often list suggested reviewers and reviewer rule-outs (with justification for rule out, e.g., ‘was a postdoc in the lab of Y’). I have not yet done this with my philosophy submissions.
This process I adapted from the neuroscience submission process, and I have *no idea* if it makes a difference. The intent is to get over the desk rejection hurdle. I often receive the ‘why are philosophers interested in this?’ objection, and the cover letter allows me a place to succinctly make my case. But again, I have no data on this. For resubmissions in philosophy, I do not compose a cover letter; in neuroscience, I do.
By the by, I’m happy to share my cover letters with anyone who is interested. Feel free to email me.Report

Matt Weiner
Matt Weiner
Reply to  David L Barack
2 years ago

A broader question about ruling out referees–this isn’t something that one can generally do in philosophy submissions, is it? I worked at a biology journal before grad school and it was explained to me that the reason submitters ruled out referees was that they didn’t want competing labs to learn what they were up to. This, I suppose, isn’t something that people are as concerned about in philosophy.Report

David L Barack
David L Barack
Reply to  Matt Weiner
2 years ago

I think there is scooping in philosophy, as a general point. People can have the same or similar ideas. Not sure how this impacts rule outs, though. As I said, I’ve never tried rule outs in philosophy!Report

Sam
Sam
2 years ago

I’ve written cover letters for articles that incorporate interdisciplinary material. Usually, this is for articles pitched at philosophy journals that lean on some psychology or neuroscience. I try to explain why these issues are relevant to philosophical discussions. Don’t know if it’s helpful, but I’ve never had a rejection when I submit a cover letter.Report

Jimbob
Jimbob
2 years ago

My perspective as a publisher of Philosophy journals (among others) is that the cover letter is usually just a source of useful info for the editorial office, e.g. if it is for a special issue, if it was submitted previously, etc. It just make things easier to keep track of. Revised manuscripts additionally require a response to the reviewers’ comments, but this serves a different purpose, and there will be separate fields for them respectively, as generally reviewers cannot see the cover letter (for reasons of anonymity) but they will need to see the response to their own comments.Report