Why do I need to write a letter to the editor? [8/8]

The last step in the submission process is an important means to "sell" your paper to the journal

You are finally done with your paper. You've polished your title, abstract, introduction and conclusion and have even critically assessed the references you are using. So now you are ready to submit to your target journal. After all this work you might be quite impatient to get your paper into the review process as quickly as possible. So you might be tempted to just skip the reviewer suggestions and letter to the editor steps that many journals now provide. Don't! Doing so robs you a crucial opportunity to shape the review process in your favour.

Picking your acting editor and suggesting reviewers

Some journals - especially those with a fairly broad scope and a large number of submissions - ask you to pick your acting editor from a list of associate and consulting editors. In most cased the choice is fairly obvious as different editors have a different disciplinary focus and/or expertise in specific research methods. However, if there is more than one associate editor in your research area, research their work carefully before making your choice. Using Publish or Perish you can do this very quickly.

Many journals ask you for reviewer suggestions. I have heard authors say: "I can't be bothered to do this, I am not going to do the editor's job!" I think that is both arrogant and naive. Arrogant because it seems to suggest that the editor owes you something. An editor is an academic just like you, but one that is much busier and who is sacrificing their own research time to take on an important academic service role. Naive, because you are basically saying: I am not willing to assist you by providing a few suggestions that will help getting the best possible reviewers for my paper. The editor might well think you don't really care about how your paper is treated and be more inclined to suggest a desk-reject.

So please take reviewer suggestions seriously; the editor will usually follow at least one of your suggestions. And even if they don't, it will be an important signal to them about the specific conversation your paper is hoping to contribute to. I suggest you name at least 3 to 4 reviewers, but ideally 5 to 6 as many of those contacted to review might decline. Normally, you would pick at least half of the reviewer suggestions from the editorial board. Again, check their research profile carefully before making your choice. Have they published in this field recently (not 10-20 years ago), are they familiar with the research method you are using, have they published in your target journal? Using Publish or Perish you can do this very quickly.

Remember that in most of the Social Sciences, reviewers are not supposed to know who the authors are. The review has to be "double-blind", i.e. you don't know who the reviewers are and the reviewers don't know who you are. You should therefore nominate people who work in the field, but have not seen the paper before. Obviously, you don't want to nominate people who you think would not like what you have done ;-). However, it is a complete "no-no" to nominate people who know the paper, even more so if they are your friends or colleagues as they would have a clear conflict of interest that they would need to report to the editor.

What's included in a letter to the editor

Most journals allow you to write a letter to the editor. In the past, many authors simply skipped this step or included one or two polite, but empty, sentences. These days, with the number of desk-rejects increasing dramatically the letter to the editor has become much more important as it shapes the editor's impression of your paper. So what do you include in such a letter?

  • The usual formulation about research ethics (not submitted to another journal etc., look at the website for exact details)
  • An explanation of why you decided to submit your manuscript to that particular journal and why it is worth the editor’s time to consider it:
    • Why would your paper be of interest to the readers of that journal? How does it contribute to the conversation?
    • What are the strengths of your paper? What are its main contributions?
    • Why is the research site/method particularly interesting/relevant?
  • A list who of appropriate reviewers for the paper with a brief explanations of why they are suitable.

That's it: you are done!

Having made it through the seven steps you should be ready to submit and have a reasonably good chance to at least get through the desk-reject phase. So all that's left is keeping your fingers and toes crossed. And if you should get a desk-reject after all, please remember: the fourth P of publishing is Persist! Don't give up! Remember that rejection is part of an academic’s daily life; if you would give up after a rejection you wouldn’t get very far. So try to get over a rejection quickly and don’t take it personal; rejection might simply mean the journal wasn’t the right outlet for your paper.


Use whatever is right for you to get the rejection out of your system: wine, chocolate, a night out, moaning to colleagues, writing an angry response (but don’t send it!). Then just wait for a couple of days, read the rejection letter again - it will seem much more reasonable once you have cooled down - and revise the paper as soon as you can for another journal.

Don't think senior academics don’t get rejections. My 2002 paper in Strategic Management Journal was rejected at three journals before it was accepted at SMJ, my 2001 Journal of Organizational Behavior paper about referencing errors was desk-rejected (“doesn’t fit the journal’s mission”) at a dozen journals. Over time you will get better at targeting your papers to the right journals; my “hit rate” has certainly improved. However, even in the last 5 years I have still received nearly a dozen rejections.

How to avoid a desk-reject?

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