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How to write a great rebuttal letter

Kakoli Majumder | Nov 11, 2014 | 347,210 views
It is important to compose a good rebuttal letter or response letter as a cover letter for your revised manuscript that explains how you have responded to peer reviewer comments

Most manuscripts have to be revised at least once before they are accepted by a journal. This holds true despite the fact that, for the most part, authors and researchers exert a great deal of effort and diligence towards drafting their manuscript. The anticipation period for most authors, as they await feedback from a journal, is marked by an unpredictable concoction of excitement and anxiety. Regardless of the author’s expectations or subsequent reactions to reviewer comments, authors are required to follow certain protocol with respect to responding to such feedback. During this stage of publication, authors tend to be faced with the problem of how to write a rebuttal letter. 

Once the author receives a decision for acceptance with major or minor revisions, he/she has to revise the manuscript based on the peer reviewer comments. The revised manuscript is then submitted to the journal along with a point-by-point response to the reviewer comments. A cover letter for a revised manuscript should be sent to the editor along with the author’s responses to the reviewer comments. This letter is often called the response letter or the rebuttal letter.

It is important to compose a good response letter to accompany the revised manuscript. A response letter or rebuttal letter can be written in two ways:

1. You write a cover letter and attach a separate document in which you have addressed the reviewer comments.

2. Alternatively, your rebuttal letter can be divided into two sections: an introductory part addressed to the journal editor and a second part containing detailed responses to the reviewer comments.

Begin the letter by mentioning the manuscript title and id. Include a small paragraph thanking the reviewers for their valuable time and useful contribution. Mention that you appreciate the inputs they have given and that their inputs will definitely help improve your manuscript. Rebuttal letters that thank the referees set a positive tone right from the beginning. 

If you are including your responses in a separate document, add a paragraph that broadly summarizes the major changes that you have made in the manuscript based on the reviewers’ comments. Mention that you have attached a document containing point-by-point responses to the reviewers’ comments. If you are including the detailed responses in the same letter, mention that the next section contains your responses.

Addressing reviewer comments can be a difficult task, especially, if there are many comments and the comments are long. Here are a few things to keep in mind when addressing reviewer comments:

1. Address each and every point raised by the editor and reviewers: Copy every single comment in your rebuttal letter and write your reply immediately after each point in a clear and concise manner. Make sure that not a single point raised by the reviewers/editor goes unanswered. Even if you do not agree with a point or have not made the change suggested, please mention that and provide a reason for your decision.

2. Provide point-by-point responses: Number the reviewers’ points and respond to them sequentially. Highlight the corresponding changes in the manuscript or refer to the line numbers in the original and revised manuscripts. Consider setting the reviewer comments in bold to distinguish them from your responses. This makes it easier for the editor/reviewers to follow what you have done.

3. Categorize the reviewers’ comments: If there are too many comments, it would help if you separate the comments into categories. For example, all the comments related to methodology could be grouped together, all related to language could be under one category, etc. If you decide to do that, make sure you add a sentence such as “I have separated my responses to the reviewers’ comments according to several categories in order to achieve an integrated approach in my responses.”

4. If comments are in the form of paragraphs, split them into points: If the reviewers’ comments are in the form of large paragraphs, divide them into separate points so that you can address them individually. If you are not sure of what a particular comment means, begin your response by explaining what you have understood from the comment.

5. In case you feel the reviewer has misunderstood something, clarify politely: Reviewers are experts who have extensive knowledge of their field; therefore, if you feel that a reviewer has misunderstood certain parts, it is likely to be due to lack of clarity in your presentation. In such cases, point out the misunderstanding politely and provide the necessary clarification. For instance, you could write: “I am sorry that this part was not clear in the original manuscript. I should have explained that….I have revised the contents of this part.”

6. If you cannot address a point, give a reason: If you cannot address any of the reviewers’ concerns, explain why you cannot do it, for instance, if the reviewer has asked you to provide additional data or conduct additional experiments, which you feel are not necessary. Avoid giving personal reasons like lack of funds or lack of time as reasons. Do not show a negative attitude. Be respectful in your reply. First, thank the reviewer for his/her in-depth analysis and useful comments. Then, explain where you feel you cannot completely agree with the reviewer’s suggestion. Your answer should be clear and logical and should be backed by evidence.

7. When adding new data or figures, mention their location in the manuscript: If you have included new data, tables, figures, etc., indicate where you have added the information: mention page numbers, figure panels, etc. If required, attach supplementary material so that the reviewer/editor has everything that he/she needs and does not have to go searching for the material.  

8. Maintain a polite and respectful tone throughout: Remember that the reviewers have spent a lot of time and effort in evaluating your manuscript. Even if some of the comments appear to be negative, do not take them personally. The reviewers are critiquing your work, not you, and their inputs are value additions to your work. Be polite and respectful in your tone even if you feel that some of the comments are unfavorable or unreasonable. Sometimes some reviewers may have conflicting views. But remember that each of them will read your rebuttal letter, so it is best to be equally polite to all the reviewers. The tone of the cover letter is very important.

9. Conclude the letter appropriately: Be careful of how you end the rebuttal letter. A concluding sentence such as the following may sound overly conceited: "Since all the corrections have been made, we hope the manuscript will now be accepted without any further changes.” A straightforward but polite ending would be “We look forward to hearing from you regarding our submission. We would be glad to respond to any further questions and comments that you may have." Such an ending is formal, polite, and reflects a willingness to make further changes if required.

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