Should Philosophy Articles Be Shorter?


“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

This line is attributed to several authors, but probably originated with Pascal. Writing shorter is hard, as anyone who has tried to cut several thousand words from a paper in order to submit it to an APA meeting will attest. Yet, when stripped of most non-essential material and organized as efficiently as possible, papers can be refreshingly direct and accessible. I would suspect, as well, that they are more likely to be read in their entirety. Are they more likely to be cited? Anyone have data on this?

Most authors already know to jettison “the making of the paper” section from their drafts, but characteristic of many philosophy papers is a kind of story. There’s the introduction of a problem, the trying of various others’ solutions, the demonstration of the problems with those others’ solutions, and, ultimately, the triumphant explanation of the author’s favored solution (and then some objections). There is drama in this presentation, and sometimes it can add something, but it’s not always the case that what it’s adding are reasons to believe the author’s conclusion.  I am reminded of the articles in Cook’s Illustrated, which tend to include all the failed versions of a recipe before presenting the one that the author thinks works best. They can tell me about all of their failed attempts to make pudding with other recipes, but that won’t make a difference to how their own pudding tastes.

Yes, there may be limits to that analogy.

In a comment on a previous thread, Colin Farrelly noted that articles in at least one prominent journal are getting longer:

This morning I happened to be reading an article from a 1970s issue of Ethics when I was struck by the difference in length and reliance on citation/notes typical of articles in the journal from 40 years ago. So I decided to compare the Jan 2015, 2005, 1995, 1985 and 1975 issues of the journal to get a sense of how philosophical articles in the journal have transformed over that time. Here is what it looks like:

1975: average size of article is 13 pages with 17 references/notes.
1985: 14 pages and 25 notes
1995: 22 pages and 47 notes
2005: 33 pages and 53 notes
2015: 23 pages with 57 references/notes.

Many of the “notes/references” section of an article published today probably approximate the article length of some articles published 40 years ago.

Assuming (as I think is reasonable) this data indicates a larger trend in journal article publishing in philosophy, I think it is worthwhile pondering how prudent our current expectations are. Does the typical paper published today better exemplify the “intellectual virtues” we want the discipline to exemplify? 

Good question. Have others noticed a trend of lengthening papers? Would it be better for philosophy articles, generally, to be shorter? Is there a need for more venues for short papers? Do you have strategies or suggestions for writing shorter papers? And finally, is this blog post is too long?

Pudding recipes also welcome.

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