The primary purpose of the covering letter is to explain what the paper is about, why it is important and how the research was done, with particular reference to the aims and scope of the journal. The Editor’s first decision is about whether your paper is the kind of paper that the journal is interested in. Your covering letter can help your paper through this initial stage by focusing on these issues.
Frequently, a covering letter says little more than, “I am submitting this paper and I hope that you will publish it, please”. Of course, that is completely unnecessary, because it is obvious. Sometimes, covering letters are little more than a couple of lines of sycophantic or flattering platitudes that reveal little of use about the paper or the author. For the avoidance of doubt, it is not necessary to explain to the editor that this is a well-respected and leading journal in the field. The fact that you have submitted your paper to the journal tells us already that you think the journal is worthy enough for your paper. But it is equally important to make clear that you understand that the manuscript review process is handled by an editor, so try to address the letter to the right person (rather than merely, “Dear Editor” or “Dear Sir”). Include the title of the paper, and the number of words, making sure that the paper you have submitted falls within the range expected for the particular journal. There are ethics associated with submitting papers, and it is important to make clear that you are aware of them. Simple things, like your full contact address and details are often missing from covering letters. Including them can only help. We will not consider papers for publication if the author’s identity is vague or uncertain.
While most authors write little more than a note asking for a paper to be considered for publication, some go a little further and see the covering letter as an important part of the submission. Gump (2004), for example, shows that there are many things an author can do to expedite the progress of a paper. An author can make clear which institution hosted the research work, indicating authors’ qualifications, job titles and so on, or at the very least, some indication of why he or she is authoritative on the topic. Papers are often rejected for being outside the scope of a journal (and in such circumstances would not even get into the refereeing process). Therefore, the relationship between your paper and other papers already published is very important.
One very useful piece of advice that Gump provides is to explain to the editor how this paper relates to the scope of the journal. The main purpose of a covering letter is to explain how the paper connects to current debates in the field, and how it relates specifically to what has been published in the journal. Citing a few key papers that are related to yours will go a long way towards answering the question about whether this work is within the journal’s scope. It is also wise to confirm that this is an original submission, and that is not simultaneously being considered elsewhere. If you have published an earlier version of this work, perhaps in a conference, make clear in the covering letter how this version differs. It is not very helpful to learn from referees that a paper appears to have been published already.
Donovan (2004) adds a further suggestion for covering letters: suggested referees. An editor can be given very useful guidance by an author who suggests two or three referees. Not that they will necessarily be used, but understanding what kind of expertise is best for reviewing a paper will help an editor choose appropriate referees. (Please be aware that it is embarrasing for all involved to suggest your friends and colleagues as referees.) Similarly, you might wish to provide details of referees that should specifically be excluded, either because you know of certain individuals who are simply set against your work (whether for scientific rivalry or simply professional hostility), or to whom you are related, or who have worked closely with you in the past on this work. Guidance about referees to choose or to avoid is very helpful for editors. Indeed, there is a facility in Scholar One for suggesting referees to use, and for requesting certain people to be avoided. In this case, you can use that facility, instead of dealing with these points in the covering letter.
The covering letter is an important part of the submission process because a good covering letter can help to expedite the progress of your paper.
Donovan, S.K. (2004) Writing successful covering letters for unsolicited submissions to academic journals: comment. Journal of Scholarly Publishing. 35, 221-2.
Gump, S.E. (2004) Writing successful covering letters for unsolicited submissions to academic journals. Journal of Scholarly Publishing. 35, 92-102.