Ask the Editors: Cover Letters

We've received our first "Ask the Editors" query. And I judge it a very good one. Dr. Horrible asks:

I saw that you are inaugurating an "Ask the Editors" section on the ISQ blog and am hoping you'd be willing to tackle the question of cover letters that accompany journal submissions. Unless they are intended to indicate to the editors that a submission overlaps with previously published work (as you've mentioned in your Guidelines and Policies), what do you think should go into a cover letter? How much importance is assigned to the cover letter by the editor? This is one mystical piece of the peer review process.

Well, Dr. Horrible, most of the cover letters we read fall into two categories:

  1. Blank ones; or
  2. Those that provide all sorts of unhelpful information.

What do I mean by "unhelpful information?" I'll start with some illustrations. 

  • Because submitting to ISQ requires you to generate a user account, we already know your institutional affiliation, your degree status, and other aspects of your professional biography. Note also that this information never hardly ever matters to us -- except in our efforts to avoid conflicts of interest.  
  • We generally infer that you consider the paper deserving of eventual publication in International Studies Quarterly. After all, you submitted it to the journal. 
  • Arguments for the general significance of the manuscript belong in... wait for it... the manuscript.

In short, a manuscript's cover letter bears almost no resemblance to what accompanies an application for a job or for a grant. You should not use the cover letter as place to "pitch" the manuscript to us.

Instead, the cover letter provides a way for you to mention important information that cannot -- or should not -- appear in the rest of the submission materials. For example:

  • That individual listed as a "non-preferred" reviewer? You have a decades-long interpersonal feud. We really shouldn't ask them to serve as a referee. 
  • The citations might seem a bit strange -- because you had to clear the manuscript through a security-review process and have therefore "public sourced" classified knowledge.
  • The dataset used is proprietary, but you solemnly swear that you have permission to provide replication files under special arrangement with the owner.

However, I feel compelled to emphasize the importance of addressing originality issues. 

This isn't a matter of saying "this is an original contribution." 

One of the many pathologies of the publication treadmill is that most of us "n+" our projects more than we probably should. The odds are pretty good that the editors will, on our own, find previously published components of the same project. The cover letter presents you with an opportunity to frame how we assess the relationship between the submitted manuscript and that other work. Make good use of it.

Have another query that we can answer? Email me. Have questions about, or reactions to, my answer? Comment below.

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