Communicating with journal editors
Communicating with editors can be challenging, since correspondence with them is so important in determining whether your paper gets published. Understanding who editors are and what they're trying to achieve through their decisions on individual manuscripts can help you to convey your message more effectively.
There are two types of editors: academic editors, who concurrently hold faculty positions, and professional editors, whose sole job is at the journal. Which type of editor considers your manuscript depends on the journal. Both types are trained in science-- professional editors have PhDs and postdoctoral experience, so you can consider an editor a colleague and use an appropriate tone when composing a cover letter or responding to a decision. Professional editors consider manuscripts from a wide range of research areas and thus may not know the context for your work as well as you do; you can help them appreciate the significance of your work by explaining it directly in a cover letter. Finally, both types of editors must consider the goals and policy of the journal as a whole with regard to acceptance and rejection, so their decision on an individual manuscript may not depend solely on the scientific integrity and value of the work.
The cover letter is an opportunity to directly convey to the editor (and sometimes, depending on journal policy, the reviewers) why the work in a manuscript is significant, which may be difficult within the formal confines of the manuscript itself. A compelling cover letter can convince the editor that the journal should publish the paper by explaining the following:
Why the question the paper addresses is important
Why the results matter to the field and to other related fields
How novel the conclusions are (more license to claim originality than in a paper, with appropriate qualification)
How the scope and significance of the work fits the journal's mission and audience
An ideal example is provided at the bottom of the page. Finally, be sure to check the journal's guidelines for required content (e.g. related work already submitted to another journal), address the journal to which you are submitting the paper (revise the letter if it's previously been submitted elsewhere), and to make the letter concise (more than two pages defending the work may suggest a flaw or bore the editor).
Your choice of journal to which to submit a manuscript doesn't have to be based on a guess or your own interpretation of journals' mission statements; you can ask an editor directly whether the journal would be interested in publishing the work. Further, this type of communication allows you to query multiple journals to identify which one would be most likely to send it out for review and possibly accept the manuscript. A presubmission inquiry should include the same content as a cover letter, as well as an abstract. Conveying your enthusiasm for the work will best convince an editor to consider it important. An ideal example is provided below.
If you don't hear from the editor within a few days, follow up by email or phone. If you receive positive responses from multiple journals, communicate your decision to submit elsewhere before the paper is published.
Response to reviews and decisions
As few manuscripts are accepted without requests for revisions or further experiments, communicating with the editor will likely also involve responding to the decision letter and the reviewers' comments. When the decision is not as favorable as you'd hoped or the reviewers were more critical than you expected, responding to these calmly and respectfully may pose a challenge. Recognizing that editors and reviewers worked hard to provide feedback and that addressing their critiques will ultimately improve the paper may help.
If your paper is accepted pending revisions, the cover letter accompanying the revised manuscript should address each point all reviewers make. These criticisms may include suggestions for additional experiments or controls or for changing the framing of the question or interpreting the results. As it may not be possible to perform all of the suggested experiments in time for the resubmission deadline, you may plan only to add a subset of these. In this case, communicate to the editor your reasons for excluding some revisions prior to resubmitting. Finally, when a reviewer comment concerns the clarity of the manuscript, be sure to revise the text in addition to explaining what you meant in the response letter. Consider having an outsider read the revised draft to determine whether your changes eliminate confusion.
If your paper is rejected, avoid calling or emailing the editor until you have digested the decision to avoid responding emotionally or defensively. If you believe you have grounds to appeal the decision, consult with a colleague to determine whether this is the case. An appeal should include only scientific reasons for why the journal should publish your paper or why the reviewers' criticisms were not fully justified; your time and effort to complete the research will not persuade the editor.
Types of editors