Letters to the editor

Sometimes it strikes you, when reading a recently published paper, that the authors have failed to include some important variable, made a statistical error or omitted a key research finding. One way of responding to this is to write a letter to the editor, or a short note for publication.

Letters to the editor typically follow the following format or 'moves' (Magnet and Carnet, 2006). They:

• remind the reader of the contents of the paper to be commented on

• raise the explicit criticism

• give evidence for the criticism

• urge colleagues not to take at face value the specific point made in the earlier paper.

Although not real letters in the accepted sense, letters to the editor are typically written in the first person. They are more likely to use disparaging terms to belittle the point made in the paper to which they are responding (e.g. poorly conceived, mistaken, not well thought out, inappropriate, unsupported, etc.) and 'boosters' to strengthen their own position (e.g. show clearly, demonstrate, confirm the fact that, etc.) (Hyland, 2004).

According to Magnet and Carnet (2006), letters to the editor are not refereed, have a higher acceptance rate, and are usually published more quickly than are original articles, but this is in medicine. In my own experience, I have found that most, if not all, of the letters that I have written have been politely received, even welcomed, but not published for one reason or another (e.g. 'insufficient space', 'the matter is in hand', etc.).

Figure 3.8.1 provides an example of one of my letters to an editor. Needless to say it was not published.

Magnet and Carnet maintain that, although such letters may seem to serve as a device for writers to let off steam, they play an important part in scientific communication. They argue that such letters can suggest ways of redirecting research, indicate new paths to explore and foster future

Dear Sir,

Confusion in the sub-headings of structured abstracts

Structured abstracts for articles in medical journals typically use five subheadings: 'Background', 'Aim', 'Method', 'Results' and 'Conclusions' (1). The authors of articles written for XXXX, however, are not required to specify the 'Aim' of their studies, but simply to give the 'Background' (2). However, I maintain that the five sub-headings are better than the four you recommend because the single heading 'Background' does not help authors to distinguish between the background to a study ('Previous research has suggested ...') and the question under current investigation ('The aim of this study was to . . .').

I demonstrated this elsewhere when I examined the contents under the subheading 'Background' for 100 articles in the British Journal of Psychiatry (3). Here 37% of the articles gave the background alone, 26% gave the aims alone, and 37% gave both the background and the aims.

It is too early yet to examine many abstracts written under the 2006 rubric for XXXX. But if one examines on the XXXX Website the abstracts for the articles published in June 2006, 17 used five or more sub-headings, 15 used four, 1 used three, and 7 were unstructured. For the 15 abstracts with four sub-headings, 6 used the heading 'Study Objective(s), 4 'Objective(s)', 3 'Background', 1 'Background and Study Objectives' and 1, 'Introduction'.

The data show that there is confusion over the wording and the contents of structured abstracts in XXXX. Greater clarity can be achieved by requiring five sub-headings so that authors have to indicate separately both the background and the aim of their papers.

1 Hartley J. Clarifying the abstracts of systematic literature reviews. Bull.Med.Libr. Assoc. 2 000; 84: 332-336.

2 Instruction to authors. Downloaded from XXXX website on 14 June 2006.

3 Hartley J. Headings in structured abstracts. BritJ.Psychiat. 1998; 173: 178.

Figure 3.8.1 An example of a letter to an editor.

collaborations. Not everyone would agree, however. Horton (2002), for instance, traced the effects of critical letters to the Lancet on three topics. Each of these had attracted twelve or more critical letters to the editor. Horton noted that, in the original authors' replies, more than half of the criticisms went unanswered, and that important weaknesses detected in the letters were ignored in subsequently published practice guidelines . . .

0 0

Post a comment