A catch 22 of length limits in publication

It is increasingly common for journals to employ fairly strict length limits on submissions. I’m actually a big fan of this. I feel that the most important points of most manuscripts will fit into 6-8 published pages and details that only a small fraction of an already small readership will be interested in can easily be placed in online supplements. Keeping papers short forces authors to write succinctly and makes it easier to manage the overwhelming amount of literature being published every year.

That said, I’ve recently been running into a catch 22 with respect to these limits. The issue stems from the fact that in order to make a full blown research paper short, you have to make some tough decisions. In the course of conducting your research you’ve almost certainly explored more ideas and checked out more details than will fit in 6-8 printed pages, so you can’t include it all. Making these decisions is a good thing. It forces the authors to focus on what’s really critical to the paper. This can be a difficult task to learn but it is important for effective scientific communication in the modern era.

The catch 22 occurs because reviewers almost always request that additional information be added to manuscripts. Sometimes this information is important, but often it is not necessary to the manuscript and includes such things as analyses that are largely tangential, more discussion of the reviewers area of research, more citations, etc. The reviewers almost never consider the length issue (which is OK) so they don’t typically recommend anything to remove, and the the AE sends the paper back with a form letter asking the authors to incorporate the reviewer comments. The authors do this because they want the paper to be accepted and send it back but… oops… now the paper is too long. So, for the paper to be submitted to and published in the journal it has to be shorter than the limit, but in order for it to be accepted it has to be longer than the limit.

In a recent experience at Ecology satisfying the reviewer comments caused the manuscript to go from being the length of a Report to being the length of an Article. This would have meant that that the article was no longer open access and would have cost us an additional $1000 for the color figures (color is free for Reports). Fortunately the Managing Editor and I got it worked out with some last minute trimming (David Baldwin is a really nice guy btw). In an even more classic catch 22 (with a journal whose name I will leave out to protect the guilty) we were asked by a reviewer to move material from the supplement to the body of the ms. We made this change, which caused us to go over the figure limit, and then the journal wouldn’t even allow us to resubmit. They unsubmitted our ms and told us to cut down to the appropriate number of figures. It was awesome.

So if we’re going to keep these strict length limits in place for revisions as well as original submissions, and I think we should, then the burden falls on the AEs to consider the length limits of the submission when requesting revisions. If the AEs could provide guidence to the authors when a revision is requested as to whether they deem particular additions of sufficient importance to cut something else, and if so, provide some guidence as to what should be cut, I think it would take care of this problem. But, that is probably a lot to ask, so until then I guess I’ll just keep combining two figures into a single two-panel figure and tightening my writing (which always seems to have space to give).

One Comment on “A catch 22 of length limits in publication

  1. Pingback: How Supplemental Online Material is changing the nature of scientific papers « River Continua

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