After months (or even years) of painstaking experiments and analysis, you finally click ‘submit’ and send your paper off to the journal editor. Euphoria and relief are quickly replaced by nervousness and agitation. Will my manuscript be rejected? Will I have to do additional experiments? Will this work be published in time to submit my grant application?
You want your manuscript to be published quickly, but submissions are rarely accepted straight away. The peer reviewers will probably raise questions about your work and recommend that you resubmit a revised manuscript. This can be hard to accept after all the work you have already done.
The rebuttal letter is your chance to convince the editor and reviewers that their concerns have been addressed and that your manuscript is now suitable for publication. But writing a good rebuttal letter can be difficult, especially when you still resent the reviewers for rejecting your work.
In this post, I explain how to overcome frustrations and compose an effective rebuttal letter to help you conquer the final hurdle and get your work published.
The decision: What next?
The editor’s decision is (usually) final. He/she decides whether or not to publish your paper based on the peer review reports. The most common editorial decision is ‘revise and resubmit’. This means the paper may be suitable for publication if substantial revisions are made. This may be disappointing at first, especially if you need your work published quickly. But it is not a rejection; your paper can still be accepted if you address all the reviewers’ concerns.
Before you start writing an angry email to the reviewers or planning their demise, consider what they are asking for. Chances are their suggestions will greatly improve your manuscript. They may have picked up on important flaws in your research design or argumentation that you had not noticed. Also, remember that they have taken time out of their busy research schedule to read and consider your work. So be polite and respectful.
Read each comment, decide whether or not you agree, and think about your answer. Remember that your paper is facing a second round of review, so answer all the comments and be thorough in your responses. To help you with this, let’s consider some of the issues that are commonly raised by reviewers.
The reviewers may pick up on important gaps in your work and suggest additional experiments. Not what you want to hear after endless hours in the lab and with an important deadline looming, but fast-tracking the resubmission process by avoiding these experiments will greatly reduce your manuscript’s chances of getting accepted (unless you have a very good reason).
Remember that it is worth investing time and effort into publishing the best possible version of your manuscript. If this is a luxury you cannot afford (that impending deadline, for example), then perform as many experiments as you can in the given time. One way to improve your chances in this situation is to show the reviewer that you have seriously considered their suggestions by incorporating them in your Discussion. For example, you can propose the missing experiments as important future work or mention their absence as a limitation of your study.
Clarifying your content
We all make mistakes and most reviewers will manage to find some in your manuscript. Thank the reviewer for drawing your attention to genuine mistakes and explain any misunderstandings. The reviewer will also ask for clarification if something in your manuscript is not clear. For example, they may ask you to provide more background information or present your data in a different way. Make the changes where appropriate and apologize for any poor presentation on your part.
Writing in a second language is challenging. Unfortunately, the reviewer will comment if your written English is not clear or contains mistakes. Many of my clients ask for help because peer reviewers have complained about their written English. If you cannot afford expert help from a language editor, a native-speaking colleague should be able to correct the obvious mistakes for the price of a coffee.
Once your answers are figured out, you are ready to write your rebuttal letter.
Writing your rebuttal letter
First of all, check your decision letter and the journal guidelines for any instructions on how to compose your rebuttal letter. For example, you may need to respond to the editor’s and reviewers’ comments separately. These instructions should take priority over everything else. Failing to follow clear resubmission guidelines will not reflect well on you or your manuscript, even at this late stage. Address the editor by name; you have already exchanged correspondence so using ‘Dear Editor’ is no longer acceptable.
It is useful to copy and paste the reviewers’ comments into your letter and write your responses underneath in a different colour or font. As well as everything we have already discussed, keep the following points in mind:
- Be polite and professional at all times (no insults please)
- If you agree with the reviewers, tell them. If you disagree, do so with respect. Be considerate of misunderstandings
- Stick to the point; answer the question you are asked and eliminate any information that is not relevant
- Help the reviewers see your improvements by guiding them to changes with page and line numbers
- Eliminate errors in spelling, grammar, and punctuation
Finish your letter by saying you are confident your manuscript is improved and suitable for publication in the chosen journal. Before resubmitting, read through your letter. Check that the reviewers’ comments are properly addressed and that your tone is respectful.
Accepting the editor’s decision with grace and writing a clear, concise rebuttal letter that is polite and professional can be challenging – but it will help you conquer that final hurdle and get your manuscript in print. So . . . keep calm and resubmit. Good luck!
A well-written rebuttal letter will help you over the final hurdle. . .
Claire Bacon is a former research scientist with professional qualifications in copyediting and medical editing. She edits scientific research papers and teaches courses on scientific writing.