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Q&A: What are the first things journal editors look at in a submission package?

Detailed Question: I am about to submit my first manuscript for publication. Since journal editors receive hundreds of manuscripts, I would like to know what aspects they check first. I would like to ensure that my submission makes a good impression. 

Response: Thanks for your question. Journal editors do tend to look at certain key elements of the submission package to speed up the decision-making process.  

The most important thing to do is to refer to the journal’s instructions for authors and note what the journal asks authors to include or provide during the submission. Some journals also offer a manuscript-submission checklist and/or a manuscript-preparation checklist. If your target journal does this too, please do use these since these items will be among the first to be screened for by the journal editorial staff. 

A number of journal editors would start out by glancing through the cover letter, provided that the journal stipulates that a cover letter be submitted along with the manuscript. The cover letter should convey (in brief) not only the most significant aspects of the research but also why the paper matches the aims and scope of the journal. 

One of the most common reasons for rejection at the screening stage is mismatch with the journal’s scope. Editors have a keen sense of which papers they screen fall within the scope of their journal. Therefore, it is important to ensure that you have selected an appropriate journal for your paper. It would help for you to use the right keywords in strategic places—the cover letter, abstract, and keywords—to tell the editor that your paper is indeed relevant to the journal’s readership. 

In the cover letter, remember to highlight the novelty and future implications of your study and why you think it will be exciting for the journal’s readers. Many journals require authors to include specific information in the cover letter. For example, many require a declaration that the submitted article is not under consideration elsewhere and that you have read and understood the copyright details. Some may require you to recommend potential reviewers. 

If the cover letter requirements have been met, the journal editor would move on to the manuscript itself. So, ensure that you have adhered to all the manuscript-preparation guidelines provided by the journal, especially critical ones like word limits for different sections of the article, number and format of references and citations, and ethical guidelines. 

Beyond this, editors expect to see a clearly written manuscript. Ensure that your article is written in clear, simple, scientific English, and that your manuscript does not have any obvious grammatical, spelling, or other typographical errors. 

After checking these basics, the editor would go over the title and abstract to get an idea of the research. It’s therefore very important that your title be informative, engaging, and clearly describes the essence of the study. Your abstract should contain the most relevant information that would make readers feel compelled to read the rest of the manuscript. 

After this, the editor is likely to go over your figures and tables in order to see your main findings. Ensure that your figures and tables are attractive and can stand alone and clearly convey the desired information without the need for reference to the text. The editor may then visit your Methods section to check whether the study appears methodologically sound and whether the methods have been described in sufficient detail. 

Usually, if all the above aspects meet the satisfaction of the journal editor, your manuscript will be processed further and sent for peer review. I hope this response has given you a fair idea of what is expected at the screening stage. All the best with your submission! 

Hear what Bruce Dancik, a journal editor, has to say about submission packages in this video. For more information about journal decision-making, see Peer review process and editorial decision making at journals

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