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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Matt Drabek
Matt Drabek
6 years ago

2/3 cup sugar
3 eggs
pinch of salt
2 T cornstarch
2 cups milk
1 t vanilla
~2 large bananas
vanilla wafers

Mix sugar and beaten eggs.
Add salt, cornstarch, and milk.
Bring to a boil over medium-high heat while whisking; reduce heat and cook until thickened.
Remove from heat; add vanilla and mix.
In serving bowl, layer the wafers, bananas, and pudding.Report

Patricia Marino
6 years ago

I often appreciate — and sometimes write! — longish articles. I find that shorter articles often work well when there is widespread agreement about the framing of a problem and the concepts we should use to understand that problem, so as an author you can make a lot of assumptions about your reader. But I find that when the framing of a question or topic is part of the issue, or when you can reasonably expect readers to be coming from a wide range of starting points, more words are necessary.

I also like when philosophical ideas are explicated through rich and complex examples, from real life or literature, and such examples require a lot of space to explore adequately. The extra space doesn’t have to be because of the consideration-and-rejection of many other theories.

I’m often struck by how long law journal articles are — like 80 pages. Sometimes these long articles include discursive elements, historical discussions, and specific examples I find really interesting and useful.Report

Tamler Sommers
6 years ago

Yes, with almost no exceptions.Report

Felix
6 years ago

Aside from the issue of average length of typical papers and what to prune etc., I would love to see the return of super-short papers, one-page critical notices and the like. They used to be common, and there are a lot of things worth saying in print in philosophy today that can be said in less than 1000 words.Report

E
E
6 years ago

Yes.Report

John of the Silence
John of the Silence
6 years ago

“Not only in the business world but also in the world of ideas, our age stages a real sale. Everything can be had at such a bargain price that it becomes a question whether there is finally anyone who will make a bid.”Report

Tamler Sommers
6 years ago

Although, like Patricia, I love papers that describe real life cases and literary examples in detail. (Gary Watson’s Robert Harris paper is an excellent example.) So that’s not where material should be cut. But there’s almost always too much space devoted to consideration of competing theories and imagined objections. Bernard Williams’ “Philosophy as a Humanistic Discipline” has some nice thoughts on this question. He thinks we should consider a lot of objections, alternative responses, and counterexamples when we’re writing. We just shouldn’t put most of them in our articles.Report

Michelle
Michelle
6 years ago

How can you write a shorter paper, though, when you have to anticipate and respond to every single potential point a blind reviewer might come up with? Longer papers seems to me to be a reflection of the extremely low acceptance rates at journals and the corresponding effect that has on referee behavior.Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
6 years ago

A large portion of the recently published articles could have expressed the same thoughts, arguments, and rants in fewer words. One of the downsides of the arms-race to publish is that the incentives to rewrite, revise, polish are not what they used to be, since there are so many smart people working on a topic one is likely to be scooped if one takes to long to publish. I don’t know what follows about what should be the case. Get off my lawn.Report

Kris McDaniel
Kris McDaniel
6 years ago

I left the typos in my comment to illustrate the consequences of rushing to publish.Report

J. A.
J. A.
6 years ago

Yes!! Yes!! Yes!! One has to wade through so much bullshit before philosophers get to the point. *Analysis* articles rock!Report

J. A.
J. A.
6 years ago

An example of what I was talking about:
Philosopher P aims to defend claim C with argument A. They spend 10 pages on A, only to inform us that A is not viable. So, then they spend a further 10 pages developing argument A*. Couldn’t they have spared us, and argued for A* in the first place?Report

Komal
Komal
6 years ago

A thousand times ‘yes’.Report

Aaron
6 years ago

Articles should be as long or as short as is necessary to cover the given issue/problem/whatever sufficiently. Why are we having a discussion about mere length at this level of scholarships? The question about length should always concern sufficiency of material coverage (or so I think). However, the concern above seems to be the contrivance of shorter articles for the sake of their shortness. That’s ridiculous to me.Report

Matt
6 years ago

Patricia said:
“I’m often struck by how long law journal articles are — like 80 pages. Sometimes these long articles include discursive elements, historical discussions, and specific examples I find really interesting and useful.”

For what it’s worth, that’s typically because of three features of law review publishing that are unknown or less common in philosophy (mostly for the good.) First, law review papers are selected by students, the vast majority of whom know little if anything about the material in question. Because of that, it’s often necessary to put in a huge literature review/build-up section that is fairly tedious for people who know the material. (It’s often skipped by “professionals” when they read the articles.) This can be useful stuff, but it’s also often tedious (and sometimes not too accurate) to have it in nearly every article. Imagine you had to write all professional articles for low-level undergrads. That’s what a large part of most law review articles are like. Second, and relatedly, law reviews have obscene amount of foot-notes. It’s sometimes demanded from the student editors that every “factual” claim have a citation. Or, the editors will semi-arbitrarily decide that the paper doesn’t have enough citations, and ask for more. These need not be very useful or accurate, but they do make the paper much longer. It is now seen as typical, but is mostly an artifact of student editors.(*) Third, it’s often thought that law review pieces need to be more generally accessible than do articles in most other disciplines. The idea is that any lawyers, law professor, or judge might read them and should be able to get them. This feature is sometimes useful and sometimes admirable, but it does tend to make the articles longer and have more build-up in them. I’m not convinced it’s always a good trade-off, even if it sometimes is.

(*) My own thought is that philosophers cite others much too rarely, and should cite more. But, there is a big gap between that claim and the rather ridiculous citation practices in law reviews.Report

Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
Sad Eyed Philosopher of the Lowlands
6 years ago

What Michelle said. That sort of thing is, it seems to me, a direct result of what Railton called the “cult of smartness” in his APA address. Conveniently, we’ve since dropped all talk of that like a hot potato.Report

Michel X.
Michel X.
6 years ago

A quick look at the JAAC shows an average of 10.7 pages for 1985, and 12.37 pages for 2014.Report

J. A.
J. A.
6 years ago

Or what’s even worse is when philosophers revise premises umpteen times. “Premise (1) is problematic for reasons X, Y, and Z. Let’s replace it with (1*). But (1*) is problematic for this and that reason. Let’s replace it with (1**), which then turns out to be problematic for some other reasons, and so on, until we finally end up with the appropriate premise – (1********).Report

Albert
Albert
6 years ago

I think papers should be exactly as long as they need to be. Sometimes that can be short, sometimes that can be very long. It also depends on what exactly writing papers is supposed to accomplish: Should I write a paper simply because I have some small-ish point to make in a very specialized debate? Or should I only write a paper if I think I have something genuinely meaningful to say, which may require a good deal of systematic work? It’s also a question about what we want the profession to be like: Do we value a rapid-fire flood of small papers, half of which will not really be read and most of which will have become irrelevant five years from publication? Or do we value well thought through contributions that one can still read with benefit 20 years from now, but that also take significantly more time and article space to write? What do we want the relation between quantity and quality to be?

It seems to me that the profession is moving ever more toward a focus on quantity: many short papers, preferably in prestigious places – with research/publication count the only thing of value in hiring. In such a model, long papers have no place. But perhaps we should rather want a focus on quality, which means fewer but more significant papers, and entails an emphasis on the value of teaching as a way to give people time to properly think things through. Put that way, of course, the contrast is too stark. But there is still a question here where inbetween these poles we want the profession to be.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
6 years ago

Yes, yes, and yes.

Most philosophy articles could be shortened by 10% if the author kept all the sentences but cut 10% of the words in each sentence — try it, it’s easy. Then he or she could start cutting sentences. One thing to eliminate is what Steven Pinker calls, and rightly condemns as, “metadiscourse,” e.g. “In Section I will argue … In Section II I will argue …” That stuff is almost always useless. Finally, and taking up Michelle’s point, a real culprit is the Revise and Resubmit process, in which authors add replies to objections a referee made but only 1% of readers will ever think of. That just clogs up the paper, and journal editors should tell authors not to bother unless they (the authors) think the objection is really important. The more words it takes to convey a message the less clearly the message comes through. Trim, trim, trim!Report

Daniel Muñoz
Daniel Muñoz
Reply to  Tom Hurka
4 years ago

Yes! The person I emulate is Judy Thomson, ca. Rights, Restitution & Risk. Her abortion paper is the most widely reprinted article in contemporary philosophy for a reason—and it’s not the lit review.

Another inspiration is…Tom Hurka. (Hi Tom!) His book British Ethical Theorists from Sidgwick to Ewing is a Thomsonian breeze to read, yet loaded with citations. If I had to guess what sets books like his and Judy’s apart from the sort of thing we’re all complaining about, I’d say:

1. No junk citations. Every time a work is discussed, there’s a reason.

2. Patient, careful thought is given to organization. It hurts to reset bones, and it’s a time-suck, but there’s no substitute.

Anxiety about referees (see Michelle’s comment) may explain the rise in junk cites. The pressure to publish ASAP may explain why some recent papers, and even books, smack of slapdash organizing.Report

TS Goetze
TS Goetze
6 years ago

One way to get around the length issue is to stop thinking that all publications should follow the format of a print article. For instance, see Benjamin S Nelson’s experiment in 21st-century Tractarian writing: http://www.academia.edu/12234155/Representations_in_Mind_Tractarian_Version
His idea is that with digital formatting tools, we should be able to expand and collapse sections of a paper so the main points of the paper can be seen at a glance, and the details of the argument can be viewed by those who want them. Effectively, a long paper could be read as a short paper or any length in between, depending on the reader’s interests and needs.
Of course, this won’t work with all writing styles and argumentative methods. Still, there are other ways we could be experimenting with new digital tools to improve the presentation of our ideas.Report

hi
hi
6 years ago

Enthusiastic second of Mr Hurka’s point about “metadiscourse.” In the last thirty years or so, philosophers developed a fetish for roadmaps at the end of every introduction. That sort of thing makes sense in a book or a real monster of an article, but in a typical twenty-five pager it’s pointless.Report

Langdon
Langdon
6 years ago

“philosophy article” is not a kind and there is no appropriate length when considered at this level of generality. What there are are theses. Some theses take a lot of words to support, others less. In general, authors could be less verbose and should aspire to be so. But often times I feel like articles don’t say enough to adequately support the claims the authors are attempting to defend.

I feel like the bigger problem is that there are too many articles, not that the articles are too long. Most theses are crap. But to stop this problem, we would have to reorganize our entire profession.Report

Aaron Garrett
Aaron Garrett
6 years ago

They can be cut by even more than 10%! It’s quite surprising how much you can shorten thing when there’s a will. I’ve seen Knud Haakonssen shorten articles, qua editor, by nearly a third and they read much better afterwards.Report

Bradley
Bradley
6 years ago

I think my own papers should be shorter! And they are. But then Referee 1 finds a way of uncharitably interpreting a thesis, so I spend a paragraph making clear the right interpretation. Then Referee 2 thinks I really need to discuss a tangential point brought up by someone else, so I spend a page or so incorporating that. Then Referee 3 finds an obvious objection that needs to be dealt with, so I deal with that. Then Referee 4 finds another misreading of a different premise. And so on. Soon my 15-page manuscript is 25 pages. I like it better at 15 pages, but I only get one shot at each journal, so I’ve got to make sure that there’s no way future referees can make the same (what I would call) mistakes as the first ones.Report

anonymous
anonymous
6 years ago

Alas, there is no recipe for the never-ending pudding described in this antiquated children’s book: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Magic_Pudding. But comments on this post have provided some excellent clues to a recipe for a never-ending philosophy paper…Report

Tom
Tom
6 years ago

Another few word cuttings: “whether or not” is useless. “Whether” gets the whole point across (unless you’re actually assuming an incomplete logic… even then, find a better way to say it, actually). “I will argue for” is similar: I already know that whatever you’re going to argue is something that’s going to come later in the paper, and that it’s what you’re arguing *for*. So just say “I argue”.Report

Grad Student
Grad Student
6 years ago

It seems like the length that we should care about is the length of time it takes to read and genuinely understand a paper, not the word length. In pursuing this, I think that focus on cutting the number of words might be counter productive. For instance, Professor Hurka suggests that cutting a certain number of words per sentence, or removing signposting “meta-discourse” will cut significant length from the paper. And he suggests such signposting is worthless. I respectfully disagree with this; I think that cutting signposting might actually increase the time spent reading the paper, in many instances (I suspect this will vary from person to person, depending on their talents). In my experience, good signposting decreases cognitive load, and this decreases the length of time it takes to read the paper. It just makes the paper easier to follow. Further, I take it that cutting a word per sentence is often not going to do much to decrease the time reading, since it seems like careful philosophy reading will require absorbing difficult ideas, and cutting words from each sentence does not decrease the number of such ideas.

I also, with Langdon, suspect the problem is too many articles, though I hesitate to call other people’s hard work “crap”. Philosophy takes lengthy, difficult reflection and contemplation. Though I like the closeness of our field to many scientific endeavors, it seems like the requirements of research productivity have become too much modeled on the sciences, and so we are expected to write too many papers.Report

Barry Lam
Barry Lam
6 years ago

In this comment, I will register agreement concerning the tedium of metadiscourse. Next, I will agree with everyone about length relating to endless revisions in response to referees. Thirdly, I will remark about how short papers are a privilege for the distinguished and well-networked, as their papers are read much more charitably by the nominally blind referees and editors so as to skirt the problem of endless revisions. Finally, I will propose as a solution that every referee read every paper charitably.Report

CW
CW
6 years ago

I’m taking Hurka’s Challenge! (Kidding aside, I think Tom is right. I hope he doesn’t mind my use of his post to illustrate! Or that I called him “Tom”!)

TH: “Yes, yes, and yes. Most philosophy articles could be shortened by 10% if the author kept all the sentences but cut 10% of the words in each sentence — try it, it’s easy. Then he or she could start cutting sentences. One thing to eliminate is what Steven Pinker calls, and rightly condemns as, “metadiscourse,” e.g. “In Section I will argue … In Section II I will argue …” That stuff is almost always useless. Finally, and taking up Michelle’s point, a real culprit is the Revise and Resubmit process, in which authors add replies to objections a referee made but only 1% of readers will ever think of. That just clogs up the paper, and journal editors should tell authors not to bother unless they (the authors) think the objection is really important. The more words it takes to convey a message the less clearly the message comes through. Trim, trim, trim!” (Hurka at #20)

CW: “Yes. Most articles could be shortened by 10% if authors cut 10% of the words from each sentence. It’s easy. Then cut some sentences. Eliminate “metadiscourse,” e.g., “In Section I will argue ….” As Steven Pinker says, it’s usually useless. And Michelle is right: Revise and Resubmit is a problem when authors must respond to each referee’s (often unusual) objections. Editors should be modest and use good judgment when requesting revisions. Using too many words can garble the message. Trim!”

TH: 152
CW: 80

Pudding Tax:
http://food52.com/recipes/22935-lemon-curdReport

Alan Richardson
6 years ago

Langdon up in comment 24 is right: The requirements of a history paper on an understudied aspect of history of philosophy are very different even from the latest missive on the canonical historical figures much less from the needs of a paper in contemporary metaphysics or philosophy of science. To try to enforce genre standards across philosophical fields would be a terrible mistake because it would impose the standards appropriate only to some subdisciplines upon the rest. My pudding recipe: Open Locke’s Essay Concerning Human Understanding to any page. Read it. Within an hour your brain will be pudding.Report

Confused Anon
Confused Anon
6 years ago

It’s likely primarily a reflection of the increasing size of the profession, isn’t it? For whatever topic you work on, there is now a much larger set of other philosophers who have also published on the same thing. Combine that with the researcher’s duty to cite relevant literature in her paper and you get the results above. An original argument, or original way of walking through a topic won’t be acceptable if it doesn’t touch base with what everyone says in the literature. There are ways in which this is for the good, but I think, at least for the journals, original shorter articles become impossible under these expectations. (I guess not much original in my comment here, but voicing support for those commenters who said similar things above.)Report

Dale Miller
6 years ago

It’s worth remembering Marcus’s discussion on the need to read and cite more in this context. If we take that to heart, then we’ll need to work hard on being less prolix just to keep our papers from growing any longer than they already are.Report

Paul Kelleher
Paul Kelleher
6 years ago

Since the absurdity of law review articles and their footnotes has been mentioned, let me cite my favorite example of this:

“Feudtner and Marcuse’s attempt to analyze the justice of vaccination policies is insightful.^235” Footnote 235 then reads: “See Feudtner & Marcuse, supra note 192, at 1160.”

That’s from p. 39, here: https://scholarsbank.uoregon.edu/xmlui/bitstream/handle/1794/18592/Holland.pdf?sequence=1Report

Alan White
6 years ago

I love Analysis, and regard my two pubs there with particular pride. It’s the only journal that I read regularly because it’s generalist, rigorous, and packs quite a few pieces into each issue due to limitations on length. The addition in the last few years of book symposia and recent literature overviews has been a terrific contribution to the profession.

Anecdote about my first acceptance to Analysis, which was just a reply. I’d written about 10 drafts, probably verging on 75 pages in total in different versions, which the editor rejected oh maybe a half-dozen times (these were the snail-mail days and my submissions were over a period of about three years): each version was about 5-6 journal pages. Then I finally got it through my thick head and submitted the accepted version which is in total less than two pages in print.

The classic inspiration for brevity is George Boolos’ terrific 1994 Mind article, Godel’s Second Incompleteness Theorem Explained in Words of One Syllable. Would that I were so wise.Report

AnonAttorney
AnonAttorney
6 years ago

I don’t think you can have it both ways. If you want a lot of citation to background material, you’ll get something that looks like a law review article, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing. It’s good to have to write for an audience outside the dozen other academics who are neck deep in whatever issue you’re working on. In much the same way teaching helps scholarship, having to explain how debates got to where they are now can help you understand the issue more clearly. If the reader already knows the background, then he or she can skip the background– though signalling where the background is given requires, *gasp*, metadiscourse.

Philosophy articles really aren’t that long compared to articles in some other fields, but if you really don’t want long articles, then stop calling for philosophers to cite more. “But I want a happy medium!” you protest. So does every discipline and every reader. We all want articles to be the perfect length, perfectly clear, engaging and enjoyable. Sadly, writing is hard, and the vast majority of it is going to be bad in one direction or the other. I don’t think calls for more citations and shorter papers is going to do anything but confuse younger writers, while the older one’s won’t change how they write anyway.Report

Tom Hurka
Tom Hurka
6 years ago

CW: Touche!Report

Cary Cook
6 years ago

Few professional philosophers will condescend to brevity, because they can’t get fame and money by talking straight. e.g. The Gettier Problem takes several pages to say what could have been said in 2 words: coincidental correctness.Report

CW
CW
6 years ago

Hello Tom! It’s a bit unfair of me to take advantage of a blog comment as I did (rarely our best writing!) so thanks for playing along.Report

Chris
Chris
6 years ago

I’ve always wondered whether in an earlier time the objections and nit-picking that occurs in referee comments didn’t happen in published articles as part of the professional discourse. Arguments then were not supposed to be miraculously birthed fully grown and replete with replies to every imaginable objection.Report

Evelyn Brister
Evelyn Brister
6 years ago

I can’t speak for philosophy, but there are relevant empirical studies from the sciences. From a report published by the International Association of Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers in 2012: “Reading patterns are changing…with researchers reading more, averaging 270 articles per year, but spending less time per article, with reported reading times down from 45-50 minutes in the mid-1990s to just over 30 minutes.” A different source shows that science journal articles are longer now than two decades ago. In science and medicine, longer articles have higher citation rates (perhaps because they tend to be more complex). A word to the wise is that if you’re going to cut some words, best not to cut them from the title: at least in the sciences, longer titles are associated with higher citation rates.Report

PeterJ
6 years ago

In the official literature, on average, there seems to be an inverse correlation between the profundity of what is being said and the quantity of words. Examples are unfair but the correlation seems particularly clear in consciousness studies.

“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?”

Yes, yes, yes and no.Report

Fundulidae
Fundulidae
4 years ago

Benign Hypothesis: articles are longer because people write fewer books.
Since many philosophers nowadays have entire careers without writing books (something that I think was rare in the past), much more of the extended and detail philosophical argumentation that used to be done in book form is now down in article form. Report