Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

50 ways to write a (cover) letter

Kyle’s blog entry on writing scientific papers got me thinking about an important – and underappreciated – part of submitting your work to a journal. So I thought I’d write down a few of my thoughts about cover letters. A caveat, of course, is that these are just my opinions – maybe other NPG editors can chime in and let me know if they agree/disagree with the items on this list…

1. You don’t need to discuss much, but always submit a cover letter (unless the journal doesn’t allow it) – I obviously can’t speak for editors at other journals, but I always read the cover letter. It’s often the first thing an editor reads, so don’t miss out on a chance to make a good impression.

2. You don’t need to be coy, Roy – the cover letter should contain a brief summary of the work, but be careful not to over- or underplay the discovery. If there are other key papers that have been recently published (i.e., this work refutes the model proposed in that paper), then point them out in the cover letter too – this part of the letter can be used to put your work into a broader context and highlight certain aspects that were unexpected/surprising.

3. Eschew obfuscation, espouse elucidation – it’s fine to assume the reader is a Ph.D.-level scientist, but I think it’s worth remembering that they may not be intimately familiar with every detail of your particular system. For this reason, I think it’s worth taking the time to highlight the main points/the major implications of the work (see #2, though) without getting too bogged down in the technical details. If it’s the first time anyone’s shown X, then that’s worth highlighting – just don’t forget to explain why X is so important…

4. Eats, Shoots & Leaves – Microsoft Word’s spell-check can be very helpful, but I think it’s worth asking someone outside of your immediate field to read through your cover letter (and paper) to see if they notice any spelling/grammatical errors or confusing sentences/paragraphs. (But don’t get too worried – you don’t need to buy a Chicago Manual of Style to write a good cover letter…)

5. If you’ve talked with an editor about the work (at a meeting, for example), definitely mention this in your cover letter. This is less important if the team of editors is fairly small (but I think it’s still worth doing) – at Nature, there’s a fairly large editorial team and your paper may not be assigned to the person you talked with (this is especially true for multidisciplinary work). Though we circulate new submissions to editors who handle papers in related areas, it’s always good to know if you’ve talked with someone else on the team, as this will ensure that they see the paper before any editorial decision is made.

6. Always suggest referees – most journals let you list a few potential referees that you feel are particularly qualified to review the work. But don’t put down your old Ph.D./post-doc advisor or someone who you’ve recently published with (as many editors check PubMed or other databases before contacting referees) – even if there is no actual conflict of interest, many editors avoid a situation where there could be a perceived conflict of interest. These lists tend to be useful starting places when contacting referees (especially if there is a special technique involved or if the paper involves a discovery in a relatively small field).

7. Nature allows authors to submit a short list (usually two or three names) of people working on related work (or people who the authors feel may not be able to act as an impartial referee). This is very useful information, as (unfortunately) competition and bias exist, and it’s best to know this before we start contacting referees. But please keep the list short – I’ve seen entire departments or schools listed in this section – or you may get an email from the editor asking you to revise your list.

Hmm – I think that’s it. I guess I’m a few shy of 50 – any other NPG editors want to add their thoughts?


Joshua Finkelstein (Senior Editor, Nature)


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    Jordan said:

    Josh, this is all good advice… In your experience, do journals always respect submitters’ wishes to have certain people eliminated from consideration as peer reviewers?

  2. Report this comment

    Joshua said:

    Hi Jordan – I don’t know about editors at other journals, but if you list two or three people as ‘excluded referees,’ editors at Nature generally avoid contacting them. (I’m sure that it has happened in the past, but I think it’s very rare…)

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    Stu said:

    Here are some of my thoughts…

    (a) Regarding point 7, I always respect the wishes of authors in terms of excluding referees, but it is important, as Josh points out, not to abuse this by listing 7 or 8 people you don’t want the paper sent to. If we don’t have any qualified referees available to us, how can we make an informed decision on whether or not to publish a manuscript? Excluding a large number of referees tends to make me a little suspicious…

    (b) A lot of authors seem to think their cover letters need to finish with a flourish – there’s usually a sentence which describes how the work will cure cancer and solve the world’s energy crisis in one fell swoop… well, not quite, but not far off. If you’re going to say that the work will be useful for X, Y and Z, there needs to be a demonstration of that in the actual manuscript, or at least some indication that this is a realistic (and I mean exactly that – realistic) expectation.

    © This goes along with the spell-check point of part 4 in the post… OK, we know there are other journals out there, and we’re not always going to be your first choice. HOWEVER, perhaps you might want to double-check who the cover letter is addressed to… every month I get at least one, ‘Dear editors of Science’. The best one ever was the cover letter that wanted me to consider ‘…this manuscript for publication in journal X’ – yes, journal ‘X’!! It’s just sloppy if the cover letter is not addressed to the journal that it is actually sent to. My former PhD advisor would occasionally get postdoc applications addressed to some other well-known professor in a very similar field… the address was correct, the cover letter was specific to his group, but the idiot had forgotten to change the ‘Dear Prof XXX’ bit of the letter – I don’t think many of those applications were accepted…

    Stuart (Nature Nanotechnology)

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    Catherine said:

    My two cents:

    1) We find it hilarious that people still write ‘Dear Sir’, especially since three of the four editors at our journal are women.

    2) In regards to Josh’s point #2: I find it unfortunate that the central message of the paper is frequently more clear in the cover letter than in the manuscript itself. So while you should make sure that your cover letter is clear and concise, try to carry the plain language of the cover letter over to the manuscript as well!

    3) I second Stu’s point – I actually find it more refreshing these days to read a paper that does not suggest a new cure for cancer, as then it’s more likely that the authors have actually done what they claim.

    4) In regards to the exclusions: we also honor these if at all possible (pretty much always). They do need to be reasonable, though (the one or two people who are directly competing with you, or the one person who you spilled a drink on and has never gotten over it, etc… (and if you’ve really spilled drinks on 8-10 people, well, you’ve got different issues)).

    5) On a related note, I have some things to say in regards to writing ‘response to referee’ letters (unless this was a topic for another day, which, now it’s not): Assume the referees are in fact the scientists that you have the highest respect for, rather than some Joe off the street. If you disagree with the referees, do it politely. Provide a thoughtful, hopefully literature-based explanation for what you’re doing and why. I have yet to see a referee be swayed by a letter which insults them.

    Catherine (Nature Chemical Biology)

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    Catherine said:

    I should add, in regards to responding to the referees, that the best response of all (and the hardest to argue with, I would hope) is new/supporting data.

    Catherine (Nature Chemical Biology)

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    Eduardo Enriquez said:

    Related to the point #2 "but be careful not to over- or underplay the discovery " my question for you is:

    What is the better way to show negative results. i.e. reporting that what you where trying to show was useful, actually it resulted to be not useful.

    Am a young investigator and I dont have much experience in publishing and this kind of discussions are pretty interesting for me, thank you.

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    Nandini C Singh said:

    Is it important to provide information on the authors of the paper in the cover letter ?

    Is the not so well-known scientist required to inform the editors about the authors of the paper ?

    I have received conflicting advice on this and would appreciate some honest advice.



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    Neil said:

    Hi Nandini

    From my personal perspective, I don’t think it’s so important – the paper should matter more than who the authors are. And if we do need to check out an author’s previous work (to put the submitted paper in context), then the references and Web of Science/Scopus usually do a good job.

    But including a paragraph along the lines of ‘Based on our previous work on X, Y and Z [references]…’ certainly wouldn’t go amiss in a cover letter. A two-page CV/resumé would be less useful.

    Hope that helps!


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    Ali Khosravi said:


    I have a question regarding a submission I am going to make for an ASCE journal. I have a word limit issue, about 1000 words more than Journal’s 10000 word limit. May I ask about the best way to explain it in the cover letter?
    Any help or comment would be appreciated.

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      Stuart Cantrill said:

      Your best bet would be to contact the journal directly…