How to Hit a Home Run with a Strong Rebuttal Letter

Dealing with journal submission rejection letters

Article Highlights

  • An overview of the journal submission process and the key decisions made by editors, reviewers, and authors
  • How to address editor and reviewer questions and comments
  • How to handle rejection letters
  • Useful phrases to include in journal submission rebuttal and appeal letters
  • Annotated template rebuttal letter
  • Checklist for preparing and submitting your revised manuscript
  • List of additional resources

 Journal Submissions Process Overview

Journal Submission Review Process

Meet Goldilocks. You might remember her from the children’s tale of the little girl who wanders into the home of a bear family. There, she tries out their beds and eats their porridge. Along the way, she learns a great lesson about trial and error.

The journal submissions process can be a bit like Goldilocks’ story. In particular, it might be similar to her learning how to play baseball. She walks up to home plate, determined to make a home run. She swings the bat.

“Strike one,” calls the umpire.

She tries again, but this time she taps the ball gently.

“Strike two!” the umpire says.

She’s got one more chance and isn’t sure what to do. What Goldilocks doesn’t realize is that swinging the bat too hard or too softly could yield the same result: she’s still stuck on home plate.

Likewise, submitting your research manuscript can be a hit or miss, depending on a few factors. It will take a few tries, but eventually, you will find the right match for your manuscript and hit that home run you’ve been dreaming of.

 

Until that moment comes, however, receiving rejections along the way can be stressful and frustrating. In this guide, we’d like to share a few tips with you on how to cope with rejection letters. That is, we’ll explain the manuscript approval process and outline when and how you should appeal or rebut a rejection letter.


The bad news first


Journal Submissions Feedback

Let’s start with a brutally honest fact: submitting your manuscript to a journal and having it accepted the first time with little to no change is like trying to hit a home run in the World Series when you don’t even know how to hold a bat. In other words, it’s not impossible, but first submissions are rarely accepted, at least not without some revision.

The truth is, no matter how cleanly written a research manuscript might be, some of the more prestigious journals reject close to 90% (if not more) of all submissions. Most rejected papers never even make it to the reviewers because the editors feel that the paper does not fit the journal’s current needs or the editors are not convinced by the research and methodology presented in the manuscripts. But don’t stop reading here. We do have good news for you!


The good news


Even though the submissions process can be frustrating, you can improve your odds of acceptance. In a separate article,  we emphasize following author guidelines, presenting a thoroughly developed experimental design, and structuring your findings to answer questions that would intrigue your target journal’s readers. In addition to these methods, you should also draft a strong cover letter. An effective submission cover letter will persuade editors to forward your paper to peer reviewers for further consideration.

If you make it past the editorial cut, you’ve made it to first base!   Once there, your paper’s success will depend on how peer reviewers react to your paper and how you respond to their comments.


What happens once your paper is submitted?


Before we explain how to respond to editor and peer feedback, we want to explain what happens to your paper once you submit your draft manuscript to the journal. Below is a flowchart that highlights the key decisions and actions that occur during the submission review process.

Journal Submission Rebuttal or Appeal Letter

Click on the link at the top of the page to download a pdf of this image.

As you examine the image above, imagine that you’ve just warmed up and are now ready to bat. How you advance from home plate to each subsequent base will depend on the factors we discuss below.

  1. You’re up to Bat. You initiate the review process when you submit your draft manuscript to your target journal. Assuming that your bat makes contact with the pitched ball, the following are some milestones you’ll come across as you trek toward victory!
  2. Advance to First Base. Once received, the editors will make the first major decision. Some aspects they may examine include:
    • Does your research paper meet the journal’s scope and aim?
    • Will the paper interest the journal’s readers?
    • Did the journal recently publish a similar article (and therefore doesn’t want to publish another of the same kind)?
    • Did you follow submission guidelines provided in the journal’s Instruction to Authors?
    • Are there any gaps in your research methodology?
    • Is your paper generally readable (no major grammatical and stylistic errors)?

If the editors don’t think your paper matches their requirements, then your paper will be rejected flat out without undergoing peer review. Here, you have two choices:

- submit to another journal; or

- follow-up with an appeal to reconsider your paper for submission. [Unfortunately, this second option is highly unlikely. If you completely revamp your paper, then you should make a new submission altogether.]

  1. Dash to Second Base. If the editors are satisfied with your paper from an editorial perspective, they will forward your article to relevant peers. These researchers are experts in a field related to your project, and they will examine the merits of your studies. They may also comment on the technical writing aspects, particularly if your writing impedes their comprehension of your methods, results, and analysis. Some of the key factors they may consider include the following.
    • Does your methodology have flaws that can’t be ignored?
    • Is your research incomplete?
    • Do your findings support your conclusions?

If your reviewers don’t think your paper is up to par (especially if they feel your research is incomplete or your analysis is flawed), then your paper will be rejected. You have two choices:

- submit to another journal; or

- follow-up with an appeal to reconsider your paper for submission. [Unfortunately, this second option is highly unlikely. If you completely revamp your paper, then you should make a new submission altogether.]

If your reviewers liked your paper but have several questions as is often the case), then they will recommend further consideration upon your satisfactory response to peer feedback (more on this below in the section “How to Respond to Peer Feedback”).

  1. Slide to Third Base. At this point, the editorial team has received your reply to their feedback and are satisfied with the changes and are convinced that your paper is suitable for publication. They may have a few follow-up questions, but these should require minimal changes to your manuscript. You’re about to score, and unless there are some issues like discovering that you falsified any information you provided, your paper will be published.
  2. Stroll to Complete the Run! The editors are ready to green-light the publication of your paper. They’ve made all the final edits and you’ve satisfied any remaining administrative matters before your article is published.

How to respond to editor or reviewer feedback?

Responding to Editor and Reviewer Feedback

When you receive a response letter from an editor that isn’t a flat-out rejection, it will most likely also contain feedback asking for clarification and revision. These comments and questions will come from the editor and your reviewers. Positive feedback generally comes in two forms:

  1. The journal is interested in your paper, and the reviewers would like you to make some minor changes or additions to polish your article’s contents. This type of letter indicates you’ve hit a double, and it’s fairly smooth sailing from this point forward.
  2. You might receive a letter that rejects your paper but says that the journal would reconsider upon substantial revision, including the possible addition of new data. To use our baseball analogy, you’ve hit a single but didn’t quite make it as far as second base. You’re not out of the game, though. You quickly dash back to first base, and while there, you can work through editing your manuscript and conducting additional experiments, if necessary.

Regardless of how you make it to first or second base, journal acceptance will depend on how you answer the questions and comments noted in the editor’s letter. To that end, when you write your rebuttal letter to the journal, keep the following points in mind.

Dos Dont’s
Thank the editor and reviewers for the time they spent reviewing your manuscript. Similarly, maintain a respectful and deferential tone throughout. Remember, you want them to like you and your work. Don’t give them unnecessary reasons for tossing your manuscript into the reject pile. Don’t insult your editors or reviewers. Be respectful. Take care not to use phrases that suggest the editor or review made a mistake. (See list of useful phrases further below.)
Answer all questions asked by the editor and reviewers. Also make sure to respond to all comments, including those that might be a general thank you or praise. Don’t ignore a question or comment. Failure to address every point will prolong the process and decreases the chance of a speedy acceptance.
If you can’t respond to a question or comment, then explain why not.  This way, you are addressing the issue even if you can’t provide a specific answer or solution. Don’t justify your failure to sufficiently conduct a study by stating economic or other personal limitations. You won’t sway editors or reviewers if they feel your research is lacking, regardless of the circumstances. However, if you need to restate the SCOPE of your study so that your findings are complete as presented, do so.
Copy the full text of reviewer comments and include relevant responses under each section of the original text (as shown in the template below). Formatting is important. Use bullets, different fonts, bold or italics to help distinguish your replies from the reviewers’ comments. Don’t partially address or rephrase an editor’s comment or question to suit your needs. If they asked you a tough question, you’ll need to tackle it sufficiently to satisfy them.
If your original submission contained the appropriate answers to the reviewer’s questions, specify the sections that address the queries. Don’t let your frustrations influence the tone of your writing if you feel that a reviewer asked you about a point that you believe has already been addressed in your paper. (See list of useful phrases further below.)
 If you added new visual aids or other supplementary materials to your revised paper, make sure to point those out clearly in the letter by referencing relevant page and line numbers, figure numbers, etc. Don’t info dump in a disorganized manner. Formatting your rebuttal letter will reduce miscommunication and help the reviewers and editors quickly find the information they requested.
If the journal gives you a deadline for your response, be timely.
Be concise in your responses. Don’t veer off on a tangent to discuss matters not requested by the journal.

How to handle rejection letters

Appealing a Journal Rejection Letter

Sadly, rejection is a part of the academic publishing experience. As we stated above, sometimes editors reject your paper at no fault of your own. The frustrating part of this process is knowing that any appeal regarding a rejected article will most likely be put into a “slush pile” and will only be considered after new submissions are reviewed.

As the author, consider whether an appeal is worth the time and resources needed to overhaul your paper. Additionally, you could be waiting for several weeks or longer before the journal reviews your appeal. In that time, it might be more prudent to accept the feedback you have received, revise your paper, and submit the new draft to another journal.

If you decide to appeal, keep the following in mind.

Dos Dont’s
Thank the editor and reviewers for the time they spent reviewing your manuscript. Similarly, maintain a respectful and deferential tone throughout your letter. Remember, you want them to like you and your work. Don’t give them unnecessary reasons for tossing your manuscript into the rejection pile. Don’t get emotional and insult your editors or reviewers. Be respectful and diplomatic in tone since antagonizing editors will not help your case! (See list of useful phrases).
Similarly, don’t respond to a rejection letter right away. Rather, take a break and re-examine the letter with fresh, objective eyes.
If the rejection is not based on faulty experimental procedures, it’s likely that editors felt your paper would not appeal to its readers. If this is your situation, make sure to carefully and clearly explain how your research would greatly advance current understandings of the subject matter AND be useful to a wide audience. Don’t take the rejection personally. Remember that a journal has a publication calendar and strategy. Additionally, your research might overlap with work previously accepted by another author, or the journal might feel it wants to move into a new direction based on reader feedback.
If your manuscript was declined because of major shortcomings (experimental design or incomplete analysis, for example), explain how you would fix these problems. Don’t rewrite your manuscript and resubmit as an appeal since your likelihood of successfully appealing is low. If you make substantial changes (like including significant new data), you may you might wish to make a new submission instead.
If you feel any or all of the peer reviewers were biased or made technical errors in their assessment, you will need specific and clear evidence to make your case. In blind review processes, don’t try to guess who your reviewers are. Rather, focus on the reviewers’ specific comments and how those remarks clearly imply a biased opinion or a technical misunderstanding of your work.
Focus on the journal’s comments and address them objectively. And like the rebuttal letter, copy the full text of reviewer comments and include relevant responses under each section of the original text (as shown in the template below). Don’t go off on a tangent by emphasizing things like your reputation or other information that have no bearing on the actual substantive merits and suitability of your paper for the journal.

 Useful phrases to include in a rebuttal letter

Phrases to use in Journal Submission Rebuttal Letter

Below are a handful of phrases you might find useful to help explain how you revised your manuscript.

Preface to explanations

  • Thank you for providing these insights.
  • Thank you for your suggestion.
  • That is an interesting query.
  • This is an interesting perspective.
  • We agree with you.
  • We agree with your assessment.
  • You have raised an important question.
  • You have asked an interesting question.

 Expressing agreement with editor/reviewer comments

  • We agree with you and have incorporated this suggestion throughout our paper.
  • We have reflected this comment by… (p. #, lines #-#).
  • We have incorporated your comments by… (p. #, lines #-#).
  • We agree that…
  • We have now [X] (p. #, lines #-#) and [Y] (p. #, lines #-#). We think these changes now better [Z]. We hope that you agree.

Expressing disagreement with editor/reviewer suggestion

  • You have raised an important point; however, we believe that [X] would be outside the scope of our paper because…
  • This is a valid assessment of…; however, we believe that [X] would be more appropriate because…
  • We agree that…; however, due to [X], we believe that…
  • In our revisions, we have attempted to [X] (p. #, lines #-#); however, we have retained some of our arguments because…
  • We acknowledge that [X] has certain limitations; however,…

Expressing clarification

  • We have clarified that… means… (p. #, lines #-#) throughout the paper.
  • We have redrafted the [X] section (p. #, lines #-#) to establish a clearer focus.
  • We have revised the text (p. #, lines #-#) to reflect…
  • We removed [X] (from p. #, lines #-#) and hope that the deletion clarifies the points we attempted to make.
  • We have replaced the term [X] throughout the paper with [Y] to use more precise terms.
  • We have rewritten [X] (p. #, lines #-#) to be more in line with your comments. We hope that the edited section clarifies…
  • We have elaborated on [X] (p. #, lines #-#) and expanded our consideration of [Y]. We hope these revisions provide a more [balanced][thorough] discussion.

Additional information or explanation

  • We have included a new Figure # (p. #) to further illustrate…
  • We have added a new Table # (p. #), which outlines…
  • We have supplemented the [X] section with explanations of [Y] (p. #, lines #-#).
  • There are multiple reasons/approaches to…, including [our scenario]. We have included an acknowledgment regarding this point in the [X] section (p. #, lines #-#).
  • We have not done… However, we believe that [doing X] (p. #, lines #-#) would address this issue because…
  • We have not done…; however, our sense is that…

Repeated responses (when one of your responses answers multiple comments)

  • Please see point # above. [e.g., "Please see point 2(a) above."] 

Annotated Template Rebuttal Letter

[Click the link at the top of this page to download a Word version of this letter and the useful phrases from the section above.]

Sample Journal Rebuttal Letter

[Journal Editor's First and Last Name][, Graduate Degree (if any)]
TIP: It’s customary to include any graduate degrees in the addressee’s name.
e.g., John Smith, MD or Carolyn Daniels, MPH
e.g., Editor-in-Chief, Managing Editor, Co-Editors-in-Chief

[Journal Address]
[Submission Date: Month Day, Year]
Dear Dr./Mr./Ms. [Editor's last name]:

TIP: When the editor’s name is not known, use the relevant title employed by the journal, such as “Dear Managing Editor:” or “Dear Editor-in-Chief:”. Using a person’s name is best, however. Also, websites may be outdated, so call the journal to confirm to whom you should address your cover letter when in doubt.

TIP: Use “Ms.” and never “Mrs.” or “Miss” in formal business letters.

TIP: Never use “Dear Sirs:” or any similar expression. Many editors will find this insulting, especially given that many of them are female!

Thank you for inviting us to submit a revised draft of our manuscript entitled, “[TITLE]” to [JOURNAL]. We also appreciate the time and effort you and each of the reviewers have dedicated to providing insightful feedback on ways to strengthen our paper. Thus, it is with great pleasure that we resubmit our article for further consideration. We have incorporated changes that reflect the detailed suggestions you have graciously provided. We also hope that our edits and the responses we provide below satisfactorily address all the issues and concerns you and the reviewers have noted.

To facilitate your review of our revisions, the following is a point-by-point response to the questions and comments delivered in your letter dated _____.

Editor’s Suggestions:

  1. [Editor general comment]
    • RESPONSE: [Brief response thanking editor or expressing delight at the feedback, where appropriate.]
  2. [First editor comment]
    • RESPONSE: [General opinion of comment (e.g., "You raise an important question.")][Response discussing changes or providing clarifications and explanations.]
  3. [Second editor comment]
    • RESPONSE: [General opinion of comment (e.g., "You make a fair assessment.")][Response discussing changes or providing clarifications and explanations.]

Reviewer 1 Comments:

  1. [Reviewer 1 general comment]
    • RESPONSE: [Show appreciation for time and energy reviewer committed and the value of their comments.]
  2. [First reviewer 1 comment]
    • RESPONSE: [General opinion of comment (e.g., "Thank you for this suggestion.")] [Response discussing changes or providing clarifications and explanations.]
  3. [Second reviewer 1 comment]
    • RESPONSE: [General opinion of comment (e.g., "Thank you for this suggestion.")] [Response discussing changes or providing clarifications and explanations.]

Reviewer 2 Comments:

  1. [Reviewer 2 general comment]
    • [Show appreciation for time and energy reviewer committed and the value of their comments.]
  2. [First reviewer 2 comment]
    • RESPONSE: [General opinion of comment (e.g., "Thank you for this suggestion.")] [Response discussing changes or providing clarifications and explanations.]
  3. [Second reviewer 2 comment]
    • RESPONSE: [General opinion of comment (e.g., "Thank you for this suggestion.")] [Response discussing changes or providing clarifications and explanations.]

CONCLUDING REMARKS: Again, thank you for giving us the opportunity to strengthen our manuscript with your valuable comments and queries. We have worked hard to incorporate your feedback and hope that these revisions persuade you to accept our submission.

Sincerely,

[Your Name]

 

Corresponding Author
Institution Title
Institution/Affiliation Name
[Institution Address]
[Your e-mail address]
[Tel: (include relevant country/area code)]
[Fax: (include relevant country/area code)]

Additional Contact [should the corresponding author not be available]
Institution Title
Institution/Affiliation Name
[Institution Address]
[Your e-mail address]
[Tel: (include relevant country/area code)]
[Fax: (include relevant country/area code)]

Rebuttal Letter Checklist

Tips on submitting a journal submission rebuttal letter

Substantive points

  1. Make a list of changes you mention in your letter and make sure you’ve made all the changes in your draft!
  2. Make sure you’ve thanked the editor and reviewers for their time.
  3. Make sure you are sending the right version of your manuscript
  4. Did you copy and paste ALL the original comments from the editor and reviewers? Did you answer or address ALL those comments?
  5. Did you include page and line references, where appropriate?
  6. Did you include all new figures and other visual aids (and mention them in the rebuttal letter)?

Technical points:

  1. Set the font to Arial or Times New Roman, size 12 point.
  2. Single-space all text.
  3. Use one line space between body paragraphs.
  4. Do not indent paragraphs.
  5. Keep all text left justified.
  6. Use spelling and grammar check software. If needed, use professional proofreading and editing services such as Wordvice to review your letter for clarity and concision.
  7. Double-check the spelling of the editor’s and reviewers’ names.

Additional resources

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