There are good reasons that people will give you for not writing letters to the editors offering critiques of articles that have appeared in journals. Letters to the editor are a waste of time because they are seldom read and even less often remembered and cited. Nobody reads them except the author whom you are criticizing and so the only one who notices your letter is someone who takes a dislike to you as result. Even when authors reply to letters, they seldom address the points that you make and generally are more intent on dismissing your points and humiliating you than discussing important issues.
All of this has been somewhat true in the past, but times are a’ changing. There are a growing number of reasons to write letters to the editor. First, it’s been shown that the exercise of writing letters develops critical skills better than traditional journal clubs where articles are discussed and critiqued. And the intended purpose of journal clubs is not to develop skills criticizing other people’s work, but to internalize those skills so that trainees write papers that avoid these criticisms. Letters to the editor do that and do it better. Of course, you can make a separate decision whether to actually submit your letter for publication.
As a mentor, commenting upon and editing the letters of your trainees is an important way of developing both their writing and critical skills, and if the letters get published, that is an added benefit that a journal club discussion does not have
Another benefit is that having to conform to the word limitations and format of a letter sharpens the important skill of editing for brevity. It is a way of developing the skill of making 2 to 3 points in 6 to 800 words, which is about the limit of what you can expect to cover sufficiently in a letter. And picking out a couple of points from all that can possibly be made and being succinct in the delivery of a critique would improve the writing of most people.
Until recently, it was true that letters appeared in paper journals a year or more after the original article and so it was difficult to make any connection – who was going to go back and retrieve the original article anyway? – and letters generally were ignored by authors. However, that situation has also been changing.
Some journals like BMJ now have Rapid Response mechanisms whereby letters are posted within 72 hours of receipt on the journal website and a selection of Rapid Responses then appears a few weeks later in the print edition. Writing an effective Rapid Response gives you a publication you wouldn’t otherwise have and if it is tied to your ongoing line of work, gives you attention you might not otherwise get. It also helps if you can appropriately cite your own recent or forthcoming work and call attention to its relevance.
Nowadays, many journals provide links on their webpages to Rapid Responses, e-letters, and letters to the editor along side the article being criticized. Anyone going to the website looking for the original article also sees the letters. Unlike the original article in traditional subscription journals, letters to the editor can often be freely accessed without subscription and downloaded.
It is still true that authors seldom thank you for your criticisms of their papers or even directly address the criticisms that you raise. But letters probably should not be written with the goal of persuading authors to publically confess their faults. Rather, letters are addressed to a presumably more open-minded larger community who can judge for themselves whether your criticisms of the author are reasonable. And don’t take too literally authors’ dismissal of your criticisms. They often back off in subsequent publications from what you criticized. And, even if they first predictably dig in and defiantly dismiss what you say in their immediate response, when they cool down, they may think differently.
The letters to the editor that you write can be important part of your identity on the web and in the larger scientific community, especially now letters are provided with links to the original article and vice versa. Of course, you don’t really want a writer of letters to the editor to be your only identity. And some consistency in the points you make helps. I have developed a number of collaborations based on meeting people on the Internet who either were e-mailing me regarding my letter or writing letters of their own about the same article. So, even if the authors don’t directly address the points you raise and never come around to agreeing with you, you are not being ignored
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, as scientific communication moves from a reliance on prepublication peer review by the few to post-publication commentary by the many, letters are going to take on an increasingly important role in determining the ultimate impact of scientific work. It is a small investment of time with immediate payoffs to begin developing skills writing letters to editors now, with likely future benefits as letters to the editor gain new importance. And maybe the accumulation of posted and published letters to the editors will speed the reform of pervasive confirmatory bias and inaccurate reporting of results that now so plagues the literature.