editors are busy people. The volume of scientific papers submitted is
increasing and, for academic editors, the work that they do for journals
needs to be juggled with the many other demands faced by the modern
scientist or clinician. What does this mean when you submit a
Three steps to successThere are three parts of a manuscript that are crucial from this perspective:
- the title
- the abstract
- the cover letter
Step back, best foot forwardHow do you go about writing a great title, abstract and cover letter?
Before you put finger to keyboard, take a step back. Take a long,
hard think about what the single most significant aspect of your paper
is – not a trivial task if your study addresses a number of different
questions or the conclusions are not clear-cut.
Is it a new method you’ve developed? New insights into a biological
question? Perhaps you’ve used by far the largest sample size yet to
provide solid support for an existing hypothesis? Now, hold that
What’s in a title?The title needs to encapsulate the key advance presented in your
paper. Keep it concise and simple. Leave details for the abstract. Don’t
oversell or mislead!
Abstract thoughtsThe key things the editor will be looking for in an abstract are:
- Is this paper a good fit for the journal?
- Why is this topic important and/or relevant?
- Have the authors shown something new and/or useful?
- Did they go about the study in a sensible way?
- Are the conclusions well-supported?
need that your paper meets – for example, addressing an unresolved
question or the need for a better method.
Then, explain what your study involved. It’s not always necessary to
mention every single experiment, and it’s best not to go into a lot of
technical detail. But make sure the key points about the study design
are included – what key methods did you use? If sample size or
significance levels are important then be sure to mention them.
Finally, succinctly spell out the main conclusions.
There are also some key things to avoid in an abstract. Lists (e.g.
of gene names or species) make for hard reading and detract from the
main message and large amounts of technical detail can be off-putting –
there’s no need to explain what primers you used in the abstract.
The number one rule is: don’t copy and paste the abstractIn some ways, the cover letter does a similar job to the abstract in
to use as your cover letter. You have a chance to do something more to
sell your paper.
explaining what you have done and why it is important, but should appeal
to an editor who may be less familiar with the precise area you work
The number one rule is: don’t copy and paste the abstract to use as
your cover letter. You have a chance to do something more to sell your
The number two rule is simple: get the name of the journal right. On Genome Biology
we often receive cover letters addressed to, or that mention, another
journal. This suggests to us the paper has already been submitted to and
rejected by another journal – information the authors probably don’t
want to share! It also slows the process as we have to double-check the
authors really intended to submit to us.
Take the cover letter as an opportunity to explain to the editor why
the paper is in scope for the journal. Why is the topic you have
addressed interesting and important in the grand scheme of things? You
might want to highlight recently published papers in good journals that
demonstrate the interest in the topic.
Crucially, you should explain clearly the gap that your paper
addresses so the editor can grasp readily the significance of your
study. Then, succinctly outline the main findings of your work. Often, a
list of bullet points explaining the key points of interest about a
paper can be very effective. It’s much easier to digest quickly than a
large amount of straight prose.
Sanity checkBefore you submit your paper it’s good to run the title, abstract and
cover letter past a colleague who isn’t very familiar with your work.
For example, if you are a human population geneticist, ask your friend
down the corridor who works on zebrafish development if they can easily
get to grips with the main points of your paper.
Final thoughtsTo sum up: take a step back to get perspective on your work; be
concise; and seek an outside opinion. Following these steps will
dramatically decrease the chances of your paper being wrongly
How to get published: making a good first impression - BioMed Central blog