I didn’t have time to write a short blog post, so I wrote you a long one

Wellcome Principal Research Fellow Dorothy Bishop writes in an LSE blog that length limits on papers are hurting the scientific discourse. The gist of the argument is (1) that most papers need more space to get through critical ideas and (2) since most journals are now published mostly online, the technical limitations of printing presses are irrelevant.

The problem is the overwhelming majority of papers are beastly reads. And, I recognize the contradiction coming up, but most papers are too long, too dense, and not informative enough. I firmly believe any academic paper, in any discipline, should be readable and understandable by anyone with a college degree. It’s an interdisciplinary world, that isn’t divided neatly into history, economics, biology, and physics. Instead, real problems and real questions require information across all of these disciplines, and many others. I don’t expect researchers and professors to know the full depth of every field. I do expect them to know what they need to do know to solve the problems before them. And that, more often than not, requires reaching across disciplinary lines.

Most papers are published not to convey the idea contained therein, but to instead line someone’s CV. And, when tenure committees come around, page count matters, and that screws up motivations. When prospective authors see a page limit on a journal submission guidelines, it is easy to get it backwards and think that is a page target, like they are in an undergraduate composition class again. And, really, look at these critical papers in multiple fields:

Of the five most cited articles, all of which are on biochemistry, the mean paper length is under 7 pages with a maximum of 11.

For comparison, the most recent issues of the following journals have these mean article lengths:

  • Annals of Mathematics: 44
  • Public Budgeting & Finance: 25
  • Journal of American Studies: 19

But not all is lost:

  • Journal of Physical Chemistry A: 12

Now, there’s some cherry picking here. Mostly, I wanted journals that would give me citation information (and therefore page counts), in the table of contents. But the point’s pretty valid either way. Article length is going up, and there’s really no good reason for it.

Image by takomabibelot / Flickr.