Always Include a Cover Letter When Submitting a Manuscript
An aspiring author recently pointed out to me that, as much as he would like to include a covering letter when he submits a scholarly article to the acquisitions editor of a scientific journal, there is often no box or option in online submission forms for pasting or attaching such an introductory letter. In addition, there is often no indication of where within a manuscript submitted for consideration an author might place such a letter to introduce the research and document. The lack of obvious instructions does not necessarily mean that a covering letter cannot be included or even that the acquisitions editor does not want to read one, but it does mean that the determined author will have to devise an effective strategy to have his or her opportunity for a brief explanation to orient this all-important reader.
The first thing to do is to read all of the publisher’s instructions and guidelines for authors with your eyes alert to any information about covering letters, which may alternatively be called cover letters or introductory letters. If you discover that the journal or press specifically states that a covering letter is not wanted, do not include one. It is always best not to antagonise a busy acquisitions editor with extraneous information, and a good paper can stand on its own when necessary. If the instructions do not mention covering letters at all or suggest that a covering letter is not required but do not in any way prohibit the inclusion of one, it is usually acceptable and often helpful to send such a letter along with your submission.
However, you will need to determine exactly where and how to present your letter. It is important not to give the impression of sneaking the letter into your submission or pulling one over on an editor. Neither of these strategies is respectful or effective, but do examine online submission forms for approaches that may be. The form may not have a ‘paste your covering letter here’ box or an ‘attach your covering letter here’ option (though it may, so keep your eyes open), but it might very well have an ‘additional information about your paper’ or even a ‘special instructions’ box that will give you an opportunity to say one or two key things about your research and manuscript. Such boxes can be used much as a covering letter would be to provide information about the importance of your work and its appropriateness for that particular journal, but do be sure to keep a close eye on word and character limits, give your statements serious thought before submitting the form and do not provide information that is explicitly prohibited.
Another option is to make your covering letter the first page of your manuscript, though special care is necessary if you decide to do this. Some journals have very strict guidelines about the content and organisation of manuscripts submitted for publication and will not tolerate additions any more than omissions. If the peer review process of the journal is blind, all personal information about you will have to be eliminated from the manuscript, and a covering letter would not be appropriate. In such cases, however, personal information is usually provided to the editor separately, and that, too, may offer an opportunity to include a brief statement akin to a covering letter, particularly if you are able to send this personal information as a separate document. If, on the other hand, all personal data must be provided through the boxes of an online form, there may be nowhere to include such information, and it will probably be better to go without a covering letter than to include one where it may cause problems. Do keep in mind, however, that an online box or other option for offering an author biography provides yet another excellent opportunity to introduce your research and manuscript briefly but effectively.