Posted by: cjlortie | March 18, 2012

Cover letter power and job interviews

I flip flop on the relative importance of cover letters for my submissions.  Sometimes they write themselves, other times it is a struggle. I have not been cognizant enough to see if there is a relationship between those that I struggle with letters on and rejection rate 🙂 Nonetheless, in the most optimistic sense, it is the first point of contact between you and an editor. It is also an opportunity to set the tone in the conversation you will have in making your manuscript better (and hopefully getting it published). I am sure that the importance varies from editor to editor, but it is likely time well spent making sure it is effective, positive, and to some extent makes the job easier for the editor in making a decision.

I was wondering if there is a similarity between cover letters and job interviews in the business world. I have heard that there are several frequent questions that pop up in interviews including what is your greatest strength often followed by your greatest weakness. Apparently, it is not recommended to have the same answer to both questions, i.e. too organized etc. Joke aside and the obvious silly transparency to these questions, perhaps cover letters should do the same thing. With the advent of manuscript central and online submission systems, if a particular Editor in Chief has a strong preference for certain key pieces of information in a cover letter, tell us. Why not have a few boxes at the beginning of a the submission process called ‘cover letter form’ or ‘desirable editor information’ as a guide to the paper right up front? So for instance, you log in, put title, abstract, author names, etc and then instead of the usual cover letter part where you can upload your own document or paste whatever you like into a large text box, there are several tailored questions by the editor that you answer (perhaps in addition to whatever you want to load up).

How is this paper a good fit for Oikos (i.e. its greatest strength)?

This study promotes novel synthesis by combining video observation of pollinators in the alpine with assessment of trophic interactions and community-level estimates of insect diversity. Instead of monitoring individual insect behavior as is common in the literature, we pioneer a novel video method using apple ipod nanos to record diversity and abundance of entire insect assemblages.

What is the most significant limitation to this study?

The video method worked very, very well.  However, it was sometimes difficult to identity insects to species level.  Consequently, we used RTUs (recognizable taxonomic units) in all statistical analyses.  We recognize that this may be seen as a limitation for many insect/pollinator ecologists.  Also, our budget was limited so we had only 10 cameras at this point in time. Nonetheless, we see this as a very novel study.

Did I get the job, i.e. get through the first hoop? Something like the above could be very useful for the editor.  Or whatever the specific editor really feels she/he needs to quickly and effectively handle and process the high volume of manuscripts they most certainly see!  I think a standard form or a even a few questions provided by the Editor in Chief to this effect would ensure that the collaboration and discussion between author and review board is useful.  If an editor wanted to know strength of effect sizes, sample sizes, whether the paper was primarily theoretical or empirical etc. all that could be coded up very quickly in the letter.  I am brainstorming on this for Oikos, but I assume other journals have similar cover letter mechanisms varying in specificity. Given the ease of online forms, there could even be a different set of questions that pop up if you click theoretical versus empirical versus forum paper.


  1. Great post. The cover letter for a presubmission inquiry to PLoS Pathogens should be approximately 600 words and needs to address these 8 questions:
    1. What is the scientific question you are addressing?
    2. What is the key finding that answers this question?
    3. What is the nature of the evidence you provide in support of your conclusion?
    4. What are the three most recently published papers that are relevant to this question?
    5. What significance do your results have for the field?
    6. What significance do your results have for the broader community in the area of Pathogens and/or Pathogenesis?
    7. What other novel findings do you present?
    8. Is there additional information that we should take into account?

    • Whoa amazing. That must really facilitate discussion and subsequent assessment.

  2. I was also thinking another question might be, what is the relationship of this study to other work previously published in Oikos. It does not have to relate of course but if it did why not make the link right in the cover letter.

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