Should journals abolish word limits for papers?

Source: Jonathan Joseph Bondhus
Source: Jonathan Joseph Bondhus

We’re asking ourselves that question after reading a recent paper which shows that — in the ecology literature, at least — longer papers gather more citations.

In “Citations increase with manuscript length, author number, and references cited in ecology journals,” Charles Fox at the University of Kentucky and his colleagues found exactly what the title specifies — ecology papers published between 2009 and 2012 received more citations if they were longer, included more authors, and/or had a longer list of references.

It wasn’t a big difference, the authors note in Ecology and Evolution:

Although the proportion of variance explained by each of these variables is small (as expected given the high variance in citations among papers within journals), the observed effect sizes are moderate, with each additional 10% of manuscript length increasing citations by an average of approximately 1.8% (across all journals) after controlling for other predictors.

Still, they add, the reasons for the difference make some sense:

Longer papers are probably better cited because they contain both more and a greater diversity of data and ideas (Leimu & Koricheva, 2005b). We argue that the positive relationship between citations and both author number and references cited support this hypothesis. Studies that have more authors tend to draw on a greater diversity of expertise, whether practical or intellectual (Katz & Martin, 1997), and thus present a greater diversity of ideas and/or data types, especially when collaborations are interdisciplinary. Likewise, papers likely cite more references because they have a greater diversity of arguments to support or ideas to place into context. Alternatively, a longer reference list may make a particular paper more visible, as the study will show up on search results in citation databases more frequently (Didegah & Thelwall, 2013) or it may encourage researchers that have been cited to cite the paper (i.e., tit-for-tat citation; Webster et al., 2009).

And yet most top journals in ecology “indicate a preference or requirement for short manuscripts,” the authors write, “generally requiring manuscripts to contain fewer than 6000–8000 words.”

The authors conclude:

We suggest that the imposition of arbitrary manuscript length limits discourages the publication of more impactful studies. We propose that journals abolish arbitrary word or page limits, avoid declining papers (or requiring shortening) on the basis of length alone (irrespective of content), and adopt the philosophy that papers should be as long as they need to be.

Of course, there are many reasons why journals have to limit the length of papers, and some researchers have argued that authors include too much information, making it hard on editors, reviewers, and readers to sort through.

So what do you think? Tell us in our poll below.

[polldaddy poll=9557121]

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10 thoughts on “Should journals abolish word limits for papers?”

  1. Abolishing word limits may be devastating to the reviewing process. Reviewers are spending more time with longer papers and I suspect the decline to review a paper will increase without word limits. I also encourage limits on supplemental data files which.

    1. I don’t think so, at least not in my field (empirical). In my experience, papers that are trimmed to be as short as possible usually have a very hard to read and often ambiguous methods section. I’ve seen papers were every reader came up with a different interpretation of what the authors were describing. A reviewer might have to read such a paper thrice before it is understood. And later, when others try to replicate the work, they might have trouble recreating the exact conditions under which the original finding was obtained, let alone the exact analysis used.

      On the other hand I also don’t fear that authors will intentionally make their expeirments and papers bigger than necessary. After all, we are all incentivized to split up our work into as many and as small pieces as possible to maximize publishing.

  2. This is incredibly difficult issue. In my experience nowadays the reviewers often request more and more additional data and occasionally resist your attempt to put these new additions into supplemental. In this case even when your original manuscript fit journal requirements it does not after the review. At the same time if there is no enforced size limitation some people will be tempted to publish books instead of articles :).

    1. It might also be “end of story” for papers where the importance of limited experimental observations is best explained by walking a reader through an extensive discussion of otherwise non-obvious connections with the published literature.

      In the absence of time and funding to “fully” pursue initial observations and put together a “complete story” with primary data, word limits consign such reports to low impact journals, or to sitting on the shelf until funding becomes available or the literature catches up. This may not be a problem for well-funded investigators, but for the majority of us it can stop a publication dead in its tracks for years.

      For some, the status quo is fine, but for many investigators it presents a significant roadblock to advancing our field and our careers.

  3. Interesting commentary. While a few reasons why longer articles garner more citations was discussed, one might wonder if there is one additional factor. Longer articles which contain more background or discussion on possible (sometimes perhaps speculative) models may pick up citations that relate to minutiae that are not as relevant to the article’s central message or findings. There is a worry that extraneous discussion may result in citation of more speculative ideas.

    It would be interesting to see a follow-up of long vs. short articles, and whether the sentences these articles are cited in are in fact relevant to the key findings of the articles.

    1. One person’s minutiae and speculation can be another’s inspiration.

      In a world where literature mining can easily reveal non-obvious but legitimate connections, word and citation limitations bias the literature against innovation. High profile journals are widely available online and have effectively limitless storage capacity at their disposal, removing many of the practical limitations that generated those constraints in the first place.

      High profile soundbites helped make this site a necessary facet of science publishing, perhaps it’s time to try something new?

  4. There are also times when a longer article can actually communicate important information. The original report in JAMA in 1945 by Alfred Blalock and Helen Taussig on their surgical treatment of “blue babies” details only 3 cases… but is 20 pages long! And, it is a thing of beauty.
    But yes, some of the classics are quite short, such as (mentioned above) Watson and Crick’s Nature paper.

  5. I find the supplementary material to be the most enlightening part of a paper since it often lets you evaluate the numbers behind the message that the authors are trying to push. Sort of like looking under the hood of a car you’re thinking of buying.

    Instead of cutting down the methodology to be even less understandable, let’s trim down on the pointless full page of introduction that appears almost identical to every other paper on the topic and that is immediately skipped by the majority of readers. I already know that this disease has a major societal impact and affects a large number of people every year. What a wasted effort to write something in every single paper that almost everyone skips anyway.

    Also, having to count words to meet some arbitrary limit should be limited to grade school essays, not serious scientific manuscripts.

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