How to get published: making a good first impression

Here, in the next in our ‘How to get published’ series, Louisa Flintoft explains the importance of making a good first impression to maximize your manuscript’s chances of being sent for peer review.

Journal 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 manuscript?

Three steps to success

There are three parts of a manuscript that are crucial from this perspective:

  • the title
  • the abstract
  • the cover letter

Step back, best foot forward

How 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 thought.

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 thoughts

The 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?

Spend a few sentences setting out the background and highlighting the 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.

Dear editor…

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 paper.

In some ways, the cover letter does a similar job to the abstract in 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 in.

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 paper.

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 check

Before 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 thoughts

To 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 overlooked.

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