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Correspondence (Letters to the Editor)

Chapter:
Ethical and Legal Considerations
Author(s):

Annette Flanagin

Correspondence (Letters to the Editor)

A biomedical journal should provide a forum for readers and authors to participate in postpublication peer review and scientific dialogue and to exchange important information, especially with regard to articles published in the journal.2,3,24 A common forum for such exchange is the correspondence, or letters to the editor, column (see also 1.6, Types of Articles, Correspondence). Such letters become part of the published record and, like articles, are indexed by bibliographic databases. In the correspondence column, journal readers have the opportunity to offer relevant comments, query authors, and provide objective and scholarly criticism of published articles. Authors of articles to which the letters pertain should always be given the opportunity to respond. Whenever possible, the letter author’s comments and criticisms and the author’s reply should be published in the same issue to enable readers to evaluate the arguments presented. If an author chooses not to submit a reply for publication, the journal may publish a statement indicating that the author declined to comment. Follow-up or later work that clarifies or amplifies a previous publication (other than a correction of an error or omission or retraction of fraud) may also be considered for publication as a letter4 (see also, 5.11.9, Corrections [Errata], and 5.4, Scientific Misconduct)

Editors should establish policies and procedures for processing and evaluating letters just as they have done for handling manuscripts, and these should be published in the journal’s instructions for authors or as part of the regular correspondence column. Like authors of manuscripts, authors of letters are expected to follow the same policies and procedures for authorship responsibility, disclosure of duplicate publication and submissions, disclosure of conflicts of interest, copyright or publication license transfer, research ethics, and protection of patients' rights to privacy in publication.

Journals prefer to publish letters that objectively comment on or critically assess previously published articles, offer scholarly opinion or commentary on journal content or the journal itself, or include important announcements or other information relevant to the journal’s readers (although journals may have separate sections for announcements, meetings, and events). Letters that merely praise authors, the editor, or the journal rarely provide any meaningful or useful information. Likewise, ad hominem attacks should not be published.24 Some journals also publish short reports (eg, less than 500 words) of original research, technical comments, or novel case reports in the correspondence column. These reports should be handled as regular manuscripts, with peer review and revision, as necessary.

Many journals set limits on the length of letters that will be considered for publication (eg, 500 words or less and no more than 5 references). Some journals will publish small tables or figures in letters, space permitting. To maintain timeliness, some journals also set a limit on the amount of time in which a letter sent in response to a published article must be received. For example, JAMA and the Archives Journals generally allow readers 4 weeks to submit a letter in response to a published article. Journals with time limits may allow exceptions for important letters that are submitted after the recommended deadline, especially for letters that identify important errors. Journals with space and time limits have been criticized for stifling postpublication scientific exchange and debate,25,26 but such criticism does not recognize the resource limitations of journals and their editorial and production staff or the practical concerns associated with gathering all relevant submitted letters on a specific article and sending them to the author for a reply and publishing these in a timely manner. Some journals have addressed this criticism by permitting online-only correspondence to be posted without such restrictions on length and timeliness. In 1998, the BMJ began an experiment with an unrestricted policy for online-only letters that included no limitations on length, timeliness, or number of online postings.27 By 2002, the 20 000 online letters represented one-third of the journal’s total online content.28 After posting the 50 000th online-only letter in 2005, the BMJ recognized that the quality of some of these responses was low and commented that “the bores are threatening to take over. Some respondents feel the urge to opine on any given topic, and pile in early and often, despite having little of interest to say.”29 As a result, the BMJ added a maximum length requirement and raised the bar for acceptance of online-only letters for those that contribute “substantially to the topic under discussion.”29

Typically, a submitted letter undergoes an initial assessment, at which point it may be rejected, revised, or accepted. Some letters may be sent for peer review or accepted without external peer review. Letters on the same topic or in response to the same article should be grouped, sent to the author of the original article for reply (if necessary), and published in the same issue under one general title. Journals should cross-reference, and reciprocally link online, the original article and related letters to allow readers to identify and read the original articles and all related letters. Authors of letters accepted for publication should sign statements of authorship responsibility, financial disclosure, and copyright or publication license transfer. Journals may edit accepted letters for content, length, clarity, grammar, style, and format. Authors should approve changes that alter the substance or tone of a letter or response.24

For journals that publish rapid-response sections for online-only letters, these postings should be reviewed to verify that they meet the journal’s guidelines and requirements for such postings, to determine that they contribute substantially to the previous publication and/or the discussion under way, and to check for libel, error, and gratuitousness. If accepted, these postings require minimal editing. The Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine and other Archives Journals that publish online-only letters under a Readers Reply section include the following instructions30:

Instructions: Only replies that have not been published or posted elsewhere should be submitted. Replies will be selected for posting by the editors; those that are selected may be edited. By submitting this Readers Reply, you attest to being the sole author. You transfer copyright to AMA if your Reply is posted on the JAMA & Archives Journals website. Indicate any financial disclosures (eg, employment, consultancies, honoraria, stock ownership or options, expert testimony, grants received, patents received or pending, or royalties relevant to the topic discussed) in the text field. If you have none, indicate “No relevant financial interests” in the text field. This information may be posted with your response.

However, these online-only letters may not be indexed by bibliographic databases, and whether they fulfill the need for an official record of postpublication peer review is subject to debate.29

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