In Defense of Short Papers

The Mad Biologist points to and agrees with a post by Jonathan Eisen with the dramatic title "Why I Am Ashamed to Have a Paper in Science. Eisen's gripe is mostly about Science not being Open Access, but he throws in a complaint about length restrictions, which is what the Mad Biologist latches on to and amplifies. Eisen writes:

Science with its page length obsession forced Irene to turn her enormous body of work on this genome into a single page paper with most of the detail cut out. I do not think a one page paper does justice to the interesting biology or to her work. A four page paper could have both educated people about the ecosystems in the deep sea, about intracellular symbionts in general, and about this symbiosis in particular. The deep sea is wildly interesting, and also at some risk from human activities. This paper could have been used to do more than just promote someone's resume (which really is the only reason to publish a one page page in Science).

Mike amplifies this, saying "The format of a Science article might be good for Science, but it's not so good for science."

I don't really care about the Open Access stuff, one way or another (I think it's largely missing the point, but don't think it hurts anything), but I do want to disagree with both Mike and Eisen about the format. Contrary to what they say, I think there are real benefits to journals publishing shorter papers highlighting exceptional results, both for reader and for authors.

Most of my publishing has been in journals with strict page limits-- Physical Review Letters and Science, so I know what a hassle it is to distill a complicated set of data down into four journal pages. At the same time, though, having to meet those limits forced me to become a better writer, in line with Michael Nielsen's rules for re-writing (an excellent post, from which I will excerpt only the bullet-point rules. Go read the whole thing.):

Every sentence should grab the reader and propel them forward

Every paragraph should contain a striking idea, originally expressed

The most significant ideas should be distilled into the most potent sentences possible

Use the strongest appropriate verb

Beware of nominalization

Left to their own devices, academics and scientists are prone to producing really dreadful prose-- convoluted passive-voice sentences chock full of nominalizations and needless qualifications. I do the same thing myself, in my first drafts. Writing to fit a tight page limit forces you to break out of those habits, for the simple reason that "We conducted a study of X" has more characters than "We studied X."

Short papers can become really dense, but they're almost always better written than long papers.

I also think there are advantages from the reader's side: it's worth having some journals out there that only publish the hottest new results, and having those papers be short. It's very helpful for those of us who try to follow fields somewhat outside our own narrow areas to have a source of compact updates on the best new results in a variety of subfields.

The sheer number of papers in, say, Physical Review A is a real impediment to reading that journal, and the unrestricted length of those papers means that many of them are a real chore to read. I only look at PRA papers when I really need to track down some detail.

On the other hand, I get weekly email updates from Physical Review Letters, which has a four-page limit, and I do look at those. The length restriction means that the writing can be a little dense, but it also means that I can easily find what I'm looking for in the paper. They get to the point quickly, and the results are all right there.

(I don't regularly look at Science or Nature, because they don't publish enough physics to be worth my time. Any really good physics from those usually turns up in an update from Physics World or some other news service. When I do look, though, the same holds true-- it's easy to find what I'm looking for, thanks to the compact format.)

Do these articles contain every last bit of useful data? No, but they're not supposed to be entirely self-contained. Details on how some measurement were made are sometimes sketchy, but they're usually explained in more detail elsewhere, with references provided: "Using the method of Ref [8], we..." or "The apparatus is described in more detail in Ref. [17]..." and so forth.

This is as it should be. People who are already experts in the field already know the tricks, and don't need them spelled out again. People who are reading outside their own field don't necessarily want the gory details, they just need the cool results. I'm very happy to believe, for example, that Toichiro Kinoshita's group know what they're doing when they sum the 893 Feynman diagrams needed to find the anomalous g-factor for the electron, and I'm happy to have that glossed over in favor of getting to the latest result for the measurement. If I need the details, I can find the Phys. Rev. whatever paper that contains all the nitty-gritty calculational stuff.

I have complained in the past about the length restrictions, but the only real complaint I have with the concept is that it can be difficult to get people outside the field to understand that a four-page PRL represents just as much work as a 30-page PRA, if not more. As a general rule, I'm happy to have these journals, and I'm happy that they have page limits.


More like this

I'm mired in lab grading at the moment, which is sufficiently irritating that I usually have to decamp to someplace with no Internet access, or else I spend the day blogrolling instead. Or, really, just hitting "Refresh" over and over on Bloglines, hoping that somebody in my RSS subscriptions has…
My course this term is on time and timekeeping, but is also intended as a general "research methods" class. This was conceived by people in the humanities, where the idea of generic research methods makes a lot more sense than in the sciences (where there's a lot more specialization by subfield),…
Via Bookslut, there's an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education about whether reading is really important: Is it always a good thing to read an entire book? When I was a graduate student, it dawned on me that I often had the most intelligent things to say about books I'd only half- or quarter…
Over at, Jo Walton is surprised that people skim over boring bits of novels. While she explicitly excludes non-fiction from her discussion, this immediately made me think of Timothy Burke's How to Read in College, which offers tips to prospective humanities and social science majors on how…

True Wit is Nature to advantage dress'd.
What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd.

[An Essay on Criticism - Part II by Alexander Pope]

Short is better, unless to short to tell enough of the story to make the reader go on-line for more. The standard format Science article has an on-line component now.

I feel his pain, of course, as I've been struggling for months to squeeze a 100-page draft down to 4 pages in the Science format for submission (which format you can find as a Word file on the journal's website).

The late Isaac Asimov (a Biochemistry professor) described a character in one of his stories who was rewriting the entire Odyssey into limericks.

The only problem is with the "usually" in your sentence Details on how some measurement were made are sometimes sketchy, but they're usually explained in more detail elsewhere....

If that "more detail" is in another PRL or PL paper (Physics Letters is also used a lot in the nuclear and particle community, particularly if you work with European scientists or at CERN), that might not help.

In the olden days, when PRL was founded as an extension of the truly short letters that appeared in the Physical Review, the expectation was that each Letter would be followed by a full paper in the regular journal. Science does this with an archival on-line resource that satisfies this requirement if the referees also judge its completeness and quality along with the published part.

What is probably the most famous paper ever published took up only one page in Nature.

By Matt Penfold (not verified) on 20 Aug 2008 #permalink
Nature 171(4356) 737 (1953)

omitted the inconveniently female researcher who made the discovery, Rosalind Franklin. The corresponding Nobel Prize was not awarded (1962) until after her death (1958).

If you cannot explain your work using only a swizzle stick and a cocktail napkin you don't know what you are doing. Instructions are long, descriptions are short. PowerPoint is frumious.

Sometimes you do an experiment or two and make a groundbreaking discovery. It can be described on one page and then you submit it to Science or Nature.

But most of the time you toil for years, your paper is an accumulation of tons of data gathered from a dozen experiments, each with a novel and creative protocol you need to describe. It requires 5 or 10 or 30 pages to explain. It goes to a specialist journal and that is just fine.

Writing a short paper is usually harder than writing a longer paper, no matter what the format. I'm reminded of the 19th century letter writer who apologized for writing a five-page letter because "I didn't have time to write a one-page letter." The same goes for oral presentations: a 10-15 minute talk is harder to than a seminar.

That said, shorter papers are almost always more informative than longer papers, for the reasons you give. I'm much more willing to put the time into reading a short paper, because the key points are generally easy to find, and if it's a bad paper I haven't wasted too much time reading it.

Some of Mike's commenters are complaining, and rightfully so, about the increasing trend toward supplemental information in papers. It's one thing to put movie clips and the like there, or experimental details which would only be of interest to people in the same sub-subfield rather than the general readership, but occasionally I see references to figures where it is not obvious, apart from page limits, why the figure was not in the body of the paper. Science is one of the worst offenders in this regard.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 20 Aug 2008 #permalink

Management is about process not product. Each student will purchase a non-transferable emergency pager with a mandated per term fee for the free service. Assessment studies justify managerial performance bonuses. Campus Security shakes down students (expectation of productivity) to verify pager compliance versus a hefty fine for endangering themselves. Batteries not included.

A fella could get rich merchandizing a national program. University participation would be voluntary versus losing all Federal funding. Add a small block of remotely triggered HMX for Homeland Severity concerns.

You don't often find me agreeing with "Uncle Al" in blogs, but he's VERY right this time.
Nature 171(4356) 737 (1953)

"omitted the inconveniently female researcher who made the discovery, Rosalind Franklin."

I'd add that it omits identifying the woman who drew the double helix picture, arguably the most famous scientific illustration of the past century. Extra credit if you can name that woman!

"Extra credit!"?? Undeserved. Even laymen who read the NYT should know this - the NYT carried a long blurb about her, her art, and the double helix picture when she died last year.

By Madhusudan Natarajan (not verified) on 21 Aug 2008 #permalink

Watson and Crick's paper, Wilkens' paper, and Franklin's paper were published back to back to back in the same issue of Nature.

I think the key is that by default, shorter is in fact better because being concise is good. But that being said, if you leave out key information, shorter can suck. The problem I had with the shortness of our Science paper was that there were fundamental details of the findings that had to be left out that led the paper to not make complete sense. In contrast, the detail in Waston and Cricks paper was sufficient for people to figure out what the meant and what the main evidence was. And the implications of their paper were kind of obvious (hence the "It has not escaped our notice ..." Whereas for our paper, on the sequencing of the genome of a weird symbiont living inside clams in the bottom of the ocean, the detail we had to cut out was important. In fact, if you go to our paper, there is a massive supplemental file that contains text that was cut out of the paper. Nobody reads this text. In general, nobody reads supplemental information in any papers. So to me, papers should be as long as they need to be to describe key bits of information and with that there they should be as concise as possible.