In praise of brief articles

Transport Findings
Transport Findings

What is the optimal size of a research paper? The answer, of course, is that it depends. Some research findings are complex and difficult to explain, and are highly intertwined. Others are much more straight-forward, using well-understood methods to observe something new. However, most papers in most journals are expected to be of a certain length. In transport journals, for instance, this length is typically 3500 – 8000 words. This leaves a lot of words to fill, and people often stuff them, or are asked to stuff them, with repetition of well-known and well-established theory, regurgitation of self-explanatory tables and figures, citation of tangentially related research, and other matters describing what was not done in the research. Without a tight word count restriction, the authors have no recourse but to include filler at the bequest of the almighty reviewers, or in anticipation of such bequest.

Transport Findings takes the opposite approach. With a 1000 word cap (plus a maximum of 3 figures and 3 tables), it demands authors get to the core of their results: what did they measure, how did they measure it.

It’s really surprising what you can say in a few words. The Gettysburg Address was 270 words, depending on version.

Some people think fewer words means less work. The opposite is often true. Omitting needless words requires editing, and good editing takes time. The amount of time spent typing is not anywhere close to the amount spent reviewing, revising, and redacting in a brief text. We do that not for ourselves, but for our readers, to save them time, to help them see the point clearly without having to wade through a morass of miscellany and nonsense.

There are other reasons for short papers in addition to the benefits for the reader. They are faster to review, and so can go from conception to publication in less time than it takes some journals to move an article from their inbox to the review queue. I’d hypothesize (without any actual data, but impressionistically) that review time increases with the square of article length. So a 4000 word article will take reviewers on average 16 times longer to be reviewed than 1000 word article, neglecting fixed costs of getting people to read their email. Several things factor into this, most obviously considering the interactions of words in a text (a 4000 word article has far more textual interactions than a 1000 word article), but also including dread at reading a long rather than a short document for precisely that reason. And words beget words, a long document citing everyone but me can easily be just a bit longer.

We are now able in the academic community to produce many different kinds of research outputs, ranging from raw data, to figures and charts, to regression analyses, to texts and papers. These can all be put online at data conservancies and given permanent identifiers. Peer review still has some cache as a quality filter, let’s not waste the scarce time of volunteer reviewers with noise.