From time to time journal editors may receive correspondence from a reader which offers critical comments on a published article. Such correspondence is traditionally known as “Letters to the editor.”
In the age of blogs and online comments, such correspondence is commonplace, and we believe you will find these guidelines helpful in dealing with it.
First, nomenclature. In many subjects, the term “Comments” may be preferable to “Letters,” as “Letters” can also be taken to refer to rapid communications. Depending on the editorial policy of the journal, a typical sequence of publication could be:
- Original article
- Letter – which is retitled “Comment on <article title>”
- Original article author’s “Response to Comment on <article title>”
- Commentator’s “Rejoinder Response to Comment on <article title>”
All Comments/Letters received should be subjected to initial review by the editor to eliminate trivial or malicious correspondence – we recommend you consult us with respect to the latter form. If it is felt the Comment and the critique within it have value, then the editor should submit it to independent and anonymous peer review. By adopting this formal procedure, accusations of bias can then be immediately refuted.
We also recommend you consult your Managing Editor and Publisher at Taylor & Francis before beginning the process as, regrettably, we frequently deal with cases where a Comment masks a dispute between commentator and author, and where there is a risk the journal’s integrity may be compromised. We work with editors to validate the Comment, and investigate the context.
For example, if an editor receives a Comment which is effectively a challenge to the authenticity and originality of a published article, the case is not best dealt with by publishing a Comment per se. A challenge to authenticity or originality might allege:
- the article reproduces third-party copyright material which has not been properly identified, acknowledged, or cited.
- the article's authorship is incorrect or incomplete.
- the article contains a libel.
These are in effect allegations of scholarly misconduct, and we have formal procedures to deal with such allegations.
A legitimate Comment, on the other hand, might claim that the main substance of a published article, or key sections within it, are erroneous, and in that sense it would be critical of the original work; but it would not allege scholarly misconduct. The Comment will demonstrate and evidence the error, and possibly offer alternative solutions to the given problem. A Comment can of course simply be a gloss or point of information concerning the original article, and it is a matter of editorial policy or judgment whether this may be of interest to the journal’s readership.
Taylor & Francis believes that it is good practice for the author of the original article to be offered the opportunity to respond to the Comment prior to its publication. If, of course, she or he concedes the error, then the publication of a Corrigendum is warranted, and publication of the Comment is redundant. Prior sight of a Comment can also flush out any potential problems in advance.
If, however, the author chooses to defend her or his original article, and submits a Response, then the “commentator” should be offered the opportunity to respond to the Response in the form of a Rejoinder. Some journals choose not to extend any debate beyond the original Letter/Comment, and this is to be respected – although it does help if this is explicitly stated in the journal’s editorial policy statement.
As with Comments, all Responses, and Rejoinders should be subjected to rigorous independent and anonymous peer review. We recommend they are also word‐limited – 1,000 to 2,000 words is a good benchmark. In exceptional cases, Comments can extend almost to the length of a full article.
Ideally, all Comments, Responses, and Rejoinders should be published simultaneously, in the same issue or together online, with links to the original article.
The “debate” should end with the Rejoinder – extended debates are not appropriate for the journal format. However, another Comment from another person could be considered if it addresses a substantially different issue within the original article; and the same sequence and cut‐off would be followed.
The editor has the right to declare the debate over at any stage if this is felt appropriate.
The Comments, Responses, and Rejoinders should follow the format and style of a full article; they must contain all appropriate references, and must be citable.
Understandably, passions can be aroused and inappropriate language used within the correspondence generated by the Comment. Editors should urge restraint on all parties. Comments, Responses, and Rejoinders should be submitted to Taylor & Francis for a legal check so as to expunge any statements which may impugn a person’s reputation. Any statement that an observation, derivation, or argument had been previously reported must be accompanied by the relevant citation, and unsupported assertions must be avoided. Whilst a Comment on an original article may justify criticism, even severe criticism, under no circumstances is personal or malicious criticism of the author appropriate or acceptable.
The editor's decision on the appropriateness of any Comment, Response, and Rejoinder for publication is final. Whilst an editor may seek guidance on a Comment via peer review, she or he may reject a Comment without review if considered inappropriate for the journal, as being simply mischievous, malicious, or irrelevant. Any Comment submitted anonymously should be rejected immediately.
It is often argued that knowledge only progresses when doctrines are shown to be false, and rejected. Research – the research we publish – comprises the collection of data through observation and experimentation, and the formulation and testing of hypotheses. We have a duty to publish proof of error, or, more commonly, offer a forum for debate.