I think one of the sillier rituals in academia is composing cover letters to accompany our manuscripts when we submit them to a journal.
We stopped submitting manuscripts by post about 20 years ago. You’d put three copies of your manuscript into a manila folder, and cover these manuscripts with a letter, as a form of explanation. “Hi, I’m sending you these manuscripts because you’re the editor and I’m submitting it to your journal.” And while you’re at it, it doesn’t hurt to write few lines why you think the paper is exciting and relevant for the audience of the journal.
But now that we’re not doing manuscript reviews by post, why are we still doing cover letters?
I can only imagine function: to convince the editor that the paper is exciting enough that it doesn’t deserve a desk reject.
Do editors actually consider the pitch in a cover letter to decide how to approach a manuscript, or do they let the manuscript speak for itself? I’ve talked to a bunch of folks about this in the course of conversation (offline and online), and the answer is: it depends. Some folks always look at it, some folks never consider it, and some do depending on the circumstances.
My cynical interpretation for the use of cover letters is that we use them as bandage to cover up our poor communication in journal articles. An article’s abstract should be able to explain why the paper is interesting and important. Instead, what happens is that the cover letter says in plain English why the paper is cool, and then the abstract says the same thing, but in inaccessible Academese. We are trained to speak in highly inaccessible language that is only readily decoded by a small number of experts who are working in the same field as ourselves. By speaking in this obscure language, we communicate to our reviewers that we are indeed one of them. If our papers were not bloated with academic jargon, maybe cover letters would be moot?
I think the cover letter increases in importance as the exclusivity of a journal increases. The more common desk rejects are, the more more important the sales pitch. Some society journals do their best to provide quality reviews for all manuscripts that even vaguely have a possibility of fitting into the journal, as a service to the community. On the other hand, other journals (including society journals such as Ecology) get overwhelmed with submissions and it’s simply not possible to review every submission. That leaves it to the editors to decide which papers get reviewed, and which ones get a desk reject. You would really hope that the manuscript can speak for itself, but I suppose you can’t really count on an editor being an expert in the sub-sub-field of the authors and broader context might increase the chance of a paper getting sent for review.
I totally get the idea of the cover letter for journals like Nature and Science. The papers in those journals need to be so short that they’re very difficult to read, and the editors cannot possibly experts in all of science. I would really hope that if there’s something that would be useful or convincing to an editor in the decision-making process, that same information would also be useful to readers. But alas, people aren’t writing that way nowadays.
When I’m handling a manuscript, make a point to at least look at a cover letter. You never know what it might say, and it’s impolite to ignore what someone chose to write to you. But in general, when I’m wondering about whether a paper should go to review, I’ll go on the abstract, and if I need to know more, then the entire manuscript is the basis for judgment.
When I’m submitting a paper, and it’s for a journal that I know has a high rejection rate, then I do make a point of crafting a cover letter about why I think the paper is important and places our findings in context of the broader field. This all could be had by reading the abstract, introduction, and discussion, but when faced with a busy editor, if a to-the-point cover letter can reduce the cognitive load and get the manuscript routed to reviewers, I’ll call that a win. If it’s for a journal that typically reviews all papers that look solid, then I’ll just say a slightly more formal version of “Hi, here’s my manuscript, I look forward to your decision.”