How to Write a Winning Journal Response Letter (free templates)

Write a journal response letter that gets you published

The structure, tone, and style of your journal response letter (also known as a rebuttal letter) can all affect whether your research will be accepted for publication. Yet surprisingly, some researchers hurt their chances at this stage when they’re just a step from success.

They get defensive or snippy, use poor English, or don’t explain their reasoning. That can be costly. And they’re so close!

You can seal the deal with superb revisions and a strong response letter that explains your revisions and gives your rebuttal.

What makes a good journal response letter? Manners, diplomacy, logic, explanation, and good English. All of which are well within your reach.

Let’s look at the critical steps for responding to peer review and getting published. On the way, we’ll include insider tips from our published experts.

Getting to the response letter stage

After you submit your manuscript to a journal, you’ll typically receive a reply of accept, reject, minor revisions, or major revisions. The first two are obvious; the second two will require a response letter and individual point-by-point responses to the issues the reviewers raised.

Keep in mind that you’ve already done well to make it this far! Science rejects about 80% on first submission and ultimately only published about 7%. Biomaterials? 14.7% acceptance.

Even broad-reaching open-access journals are quite selective: PLOS ONE takes about 45% of submissions and BMJ Open about 40%.

Responses from journals, and responding to them

In general, journals give you about 1 month for “minor” issues like revising how you present your data or getting a professional English-language edit. They’ll give around 3 months for “major” revisions such as re-analysis or new studies.

As you work through your revisions, it’s best to work on your point-by-point response at the same time, like a journal of your revisions. Then it’ll be nearly done by the time you’re done revising. You’ll just have to brush it up and add the intro.

Regarding formatting of your revisions, check the journal’s guidelines or contact the journal directly to confirm what they prefer. Most likely they’ll be done with:

  • amendments manually highlighted
  • deletions marked with strikethrough
  • changes made using a certain color (usually red)
  • the Track Changes function in Word
  • …or if it’s in LaTeX, you may need to use the Changes package

Revising your manuscript

When you choose to resubmit to the same journal, do whatever the peer reviewers recommend, if you agree.

This can include:

  • performing and documenting additional requested experiments or analyses
  • adding key references/citations
  • adding or removing tables and figures
  • improving your scientific English

You also may not agree with all the peer reviewers’ requests and suggestions. They’re human and they’re busy. They may be wrong or a bit off.

In this case, you have to consider if you can justify your choice to reject the suggestions.

You’ll need to provide a well-reasoned argument. For example, if the suggested experiments fell outside the scope of your study, make a strong case for why they’re not suitable.

Peer reviewers aren’t perfect, but they are standing between you and publication. And they must be dealt with calmly and respectfully.

Your manuscript will need to be revised to incorporate any changes you make such as new data. This may be a relatively painless text rework, or you may need to consult with a statistician and prepare new figures and tables. And this all leads to the response letter.

Structure and style of a journal rebuttal letter

The response/rebuttal letter to a journal is like a short version of the cover letter you initially sent when you submitted your work. This time, you don’t need to fully “sell” your entire study again, but the sale’s not done yet. You need keep the prospective “buyer” (the journal) interested. You need to close the deal.

The corresponding author should write the response letter on behalf of the authors.

“A journal response letter is another opportunity for you to emphasize the importance and impact of your work to the journal, demonstrate your knowledge and authority on the research, and fully address the issues the peer reviewers have identified.“

— Geraldine Echue, PhD, CMPP
Edanz Managing Editor

Stay professional, confident, and respectful. And use error-free English. The overall tone should be polite, business-like, and clear.

Regarding format, you’ll likely be submitting this as document, so structure it as you would structure a business letter. Don’t cut corners or treat it like a casual email.

Polite, generic header and salutation

Put the date, journal name, and either the name of the editor-in-chief or the editor who is handling the correspondence. Call them “Dr.” or “Professor” as appropriate.

If you’re not sure, check the journal’s Editorial Board information. If that still doesn’t give a title, Google them, check their latest studies, and/or look them up on ResearchGate or LinkedIn. As a default, use Professor + their last name. Do not use “Mr.” or “Ms.” (and never use “Mrs.”) unless they themselves used it in their letter to you.

Then address the first part of your response letter to that journal editor.

State the manuscript reference number and title so that the editor can refer to previous correspondence about your submission.

Like this:

Dear Professor Smith,

Re: manuscript reference no. BH0914325J Please find attached a revised version of our manuscript…”

Express thanks

No matter how much you agreed with the reviewers, or thought they were way off-target, thank them and the editor formally.

For example: “We wish to thank you and the reviewers for your insightful comments. These have greatly helped us to improve the quality of our manuscript.“

Give an overview/executive brief

Provide an overview of the main changes you made to your study and explain how you indicated these revisions in the manuscript.

For example: “In accordance with Reviewer 1’s comments, we deleted the table and prepared a new summary figure (Fig. 6). Our revisions to the text are recorded using Track Changes in MS Word. Our point-by-point responses to the reviewers’ comments are shown below.“

“Editors are busy people and may only skim through response letters. But they want to get the impression that the authors are being comprehensive and taking the process seriously. The executive brief sentence saves them time and trouble.“

— Gareth Dyke, PhD
Edanz Author Education Manager

End the intro letter on a positive note

Complete this part of the response letter by signing off as you did for your cover letter. For example:

“We hope that these revisions are sufficient to make our manuscript suitable for publication in the British Journal of Haematology and look forward to hearing from you at your earliest convenience.“

Then provide the full contact details of the corresponding author and list your point-by-point responses below it.

Here’s an example of a full letter.

You can also download a cover letter template and peer response letter template from our learning resource library. They’re free.

And if you want to dig deeper, we offer simple, expert-designed courses to walk you through the entire research publication process, at the Edanz My Learning Lab.

Give your point-by-point responses

You should put a number by each reviewer’s comment (if they’re not already numbered), and go in sequence starting with Reviewer 1.

General rules on tone and style

  • Be polite, always. This means using formal sentences, expressing thanks, and avoiding passive–aggressive or flat-out rude remarks.
  • Be grateful. Peer review is a free service and it’s an essential and valuable part of the scientific publication process.
  • Ignore the reviewer’s grammar or spelling mistakes, if any. Don’t correct them. Many reviewers are not native speakers or use curt, even rude, comments. That’s beyond your control; it’s not personal.
  • Make sure YOUR spelling and grammar are perfect. Get a professional edit if there’s any chance your English is not perfect.
  • Err on the side of over-explaining vs. being short or dismissive.

It’s also a positive gesture to give a general note of thanks before addressing each peer review comment.

First-person or third-person structure are both OK

There’s no specific rule of whether to use a first-person or third-person voice in your responses. You can feel confident using either. Just be consistent.

Also, unless you know the reviewer’s identity, refer to them in the gender-neutral “they”/”their”. Do NOT use “he” as a default.

First person: “Thank you very much for your detailed and useful comments. We have addressed each of them as follows.”

Third person: “We thank Reviewer 1 for their detailed and useful comments. We have addressed each of them as follows.”

If you agree with the suggestion and revised accordingly

If you agree with the reviewer’s suggestion, say that you agree, and explain how you have modified your manuscript following that suggestion.

Example peer reviewer suggestion:

1. Standard deviation is large in Fig. 3 data. ANOVA should be used after confirming normal distribution.

Response: We thank Reviewer 1 for this valuable suggestion and we agree. Accordingly, we modified our statistical analyses. We performed ANOVA after first performing a logarithmic transformation of all variables. We have described this change in Statistical Analysis in the Methods section (p.4, lines 15–20). We also modified our Results (p. 7, lines 2–6) and Discussion sections (p. 9, lines 11–13) in line with this change, and modified Figure 3 based on the revised data. 

Note the use of bold and italics to distinguish the authors’ response from the reviewer’s comment. There is a clear explanation of what was done in the revised manuscript.

Page and line numbers were also used to indicate where the changes were made. These numbers are helpful for the reviewers, but it’s best to add them when you’re fully done with your revisions, but they will change as your manuscript changes. Double-check all page and line numbers before re-submission, to be sure they’re accurate. 

Here’s another example peer suggestion:

2. Subjective well-being needs more background in the lit review. Include mention of how it intersects with happiness studies, health psychology, I/O psychology, and overall QOL.

Response: We thank Reviewer 1 for this suggestion. We regret that our literature review was somewhat inadequate. Accordingly, we have added relevant studies in the Introduction (p. 3, lines 5–6 and 19–21). We hope there is now a more accurate portrait of the significance of subjective well-being).

This was a shorter comment. As the authors agreed, the response shows sufficient thanks and gives sufficient details. The added text will speak for itself.

“Clearly and concisely summarize the changes you made in response to the peer review comments, especially if there are ones you don’t agree with.“

— Gareth Dyke, PhD
Edanz Author Education Manager

If you disagree with the peer reviewer’s suggestion

You do have the right to disagree.

But unless the reviewer’s request was completely off-base or misinformed, try to incorporate it at least partially. For example, if they suggest adding reference to three studies, but you find those studies mostly irrelevant, try to accommodate at least one. It also shows you’re open to criticism, which is essential in scientific studies.

If you completely disagree with a reviewer’s suggestion, you need to give a convincing counterargument. This is called a rebuttal. It’s where you diplomatically and rationally explain why you disagree.

Try to understand the reviewer’s perspective. Perhaps they are not familiar with your methodology. Or maybe their strength is in a slightly different niche.

Use citations to back your argument, where possible, and present a solid case.

Here are the same suggestions from the reviewers above, but this time the author is disagreeing with them:

1. Standard deviation is large in Fig. 3 data. ANOVA should be used after confirming normal distribution. 

Response: Thank you for your suggestion. Although we acknowledge that the use of ANOVA would enable us to better compare our findings with those of other studies, our data did not follow a normal distribution; thus, we could not perform this analysis. We therefore re-analyzed our data based on the Leverhaus model (Leverhaus et al., 1978) and modified the Methods section to describe this analysis (p. 4, line 8). We also revised Figure 3 and added two sentences to the Discussion to explain this model (p. 10, lines 1–3).

This accomplishes all the goals of expressing thanks, being polite and diplomatic, showing disagreement, compromising by making a related change, and giving thorough explanation throughout.

2. Subjective well-being needs more background in the lit review. Include mention of how it intersects with happiness studies, health psychology, I/O psychology, and overall QOL.

Response: Thank you for this suggestion. We acknowledge the significance of subjective well-being and we felt our literature review put it in adequate context by mentioning its growing association with a number of fields since the seminal work by Diener (1984). We must note that subjective well-being is not a central theme in our study. Additionally, the journal’s word limitations only permit us to add a small number of words to the manuscript. For these reasons, we felt it was not feasible to accommodate the suggestion in full. Accordingly, however, we see the importance of the relation with happiness studies and have added reference to that (p. 3, lines 5–6). We hope this satisfies your request. Again, we do sincerely appreciate your guidance.

The authors had a good reason (study scope and the journal’s word limits) for not extending their literature review. They explained it diplomatically and compromised by adding a reference. They also erred on the side of over-explaining. In a response letter, there’s no harm in that.

“Through effective communication with peer reviewers, the response letter is a mechanism by which you can improve your manuscript and your research ability.”

— Geraldine Echue, PhD, CMPP
Edanz Managing Editor

A final word on journal response letters

Though a response letter to a journal, and your point-by-point responses to reviewers take a bit of time, they’re part of the process. They’re also, potentially, the last step before you get published. Keep your eye on that final, glorious goal. You want to get published, maintain or increase your publication rate, and get cited.

Being overly defensive or refusing to make any concessions to the peer reviewers could lead to your rejection. Then you’re off to another journal and have to go through all the same steps. Do you really want that?

For more details on how to effectively submit your manuscript and deal with peer review, we offer the Journal Submission and Peer Review among the many courses in Edanz Learning Lab. Try a free lesson now. Of course, we’re also happy to edit your re-submission and edit or even write your point-by-point response letter.

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