Normally when you submit a paper to a journal, you include a cover letter as a kind of formality. It’s the equivalent of a handshake and an exchange of basic information: number of words in the paper, suggestions for reviewers, contact information, stuff like that. With prominent journals, though, these cover letters are a Big Deal. Most submissions to Science and Nature don’t even get sent out for review, and the cover letter is where you make the case that your paper is interesting and important enough to pass the first cut. The fate of your paper depends on less than a page of text that only a couple people may ever read. It’s crazy.
In preparation for our imminent submission, I read whatever I could find about these letters. Pamela Hines, senior editor of Science, gives a talk on how to publish in Science that I found useful. Some things these editors ask themselves when they get a submission are: How is this novel? Is it a big enough scientific advance? Is it widely interesting? They look for work that solves a long-standing problem, overturns conventional wisdom, or has wide implications. It’s your job to figure out what’s most interesting about your work to the largest number of people and put that front and center. It’s a kind of self-promotion that a lot of people find difficult.
Nature asks authors for a 100-word summary of their paper for nonscientists. I found a forum post by a Nature staffer claiming that these summaries aren’t actually used by the journal—they’re to help authors think about what makes their findings interesting to a wide audience. It’s funny, a little bit devious, and I think it works.
I’m of a mixed mind about the whole process. I can see how high non-review rates can lead to spin being valued more than content. In my field these journals have published several papers that really didn’t deserve such high visibility. But at the same time, I can see how revising my current manuscript with these journals in mind has made it a stronger, clearer work. I guess we’ll soon see if the editors agree.