I’m not going to lie to you. It’s been a long time since I had to write one of these oily and undignified missives. Oh sure we occasionally have to write one for one of our “trash” papers that some premed sycophant or failed postdoc ends up sending to the Journal of Neuroscience or whatever. For these poor saps, I think of writing the cover letter as part of their punishment. If you’re ever going to be successful, you’re going to have to get to the point where editors are sending *you* cover letters, if not Harry and David fruit baskets, to try to persuade you to send them your papers.
But let’s be realistic. Baby steps. If you’re reading this blog, odds are you have a long way to go before you develop an “editor hand” of that strength. For the plebes who still have to craft these letters carefully to get their papers published, I whipped up this handy set of can’t miss cover letter tips!
1) Select your most intimidating letterhead. Well your first choice should always be HHMI, but take it easy. Stick with me and we’ll get you there. In the meantime, one of the sweetest perks of being at a top university is you get to use their letterhead. Make the most of it! One that has some Latin shit on it is ideal. This really lets them know who they’re dealing with. If you aren’t fortunate enough to be at a place where that would work, I really don’t know what to tell you and you might want to stop reading now. Anyway, aren’t you expected at office hours or your moonlighting gig as a bartender?
2) Keep the focus on why your work is important. A lot of people think you can get a Nature paper just because you used opto to influence some behavior. They are wrong. You are going to need two color opto at a minimum. Make sure to emphasize why your methods are superior to your predecessors’. For example, clearly state what version of GCaMP you used. Did you use something red-shifted? Don’t be shy – that’s the kind of thing that needs to be front and center. Now is also a good time to enumerate the neural circuits you dissected and the causalities you established. Finally, never describe your behavior as anything other than a phase-space map of eigenvalues. “Paw-licking” just sounds so 90s. We are doing Modern Neuroscience, which requires the kind of quantitative systems-level thinking you can only get with the right Matlab plugin.
3) Exclude all who would oppose you. If you followed number 2 above, the editor should now be salivating to publish your paper and looking to set up a kangaroo court to rubber stamp it. You don’t want your paper to end up in the wrong hands, so you need to make it clear who the wrong hands are. It is a little-known secret that you don’t have to stick with individual names. If your paper is threatened by a whole community or broad class of researcher, feel free to say so. For example, state universities outside of California are on my exclusion list. The review system should not be skewed or biased by petty jealousy.
4) Make brazen threats to take your work to their competitor journals. This is foolproof. Works every time. What editor wants to lose their job over dropping the ball on a solid gold get like the new BGB study and allowing it to land in Cell’s lap? I recommend something like:
The history of 21st century neuroscience will written by its triumphant heroes. What will we say about you? I sent you this paper because I thought you were man enough to publish it. If I’m wrong, then maybe Science has the stones.
5) Ingratiate yourself with feigned modesty and informality. Everybody calls me Bob, but I always sign my cover letters “Bobby.” That’s my move. Get your own.