A Plea for More Short Journal Publications (guest post by Avram Hiller) (updated w/ reply to comments)

“The marginal increase in overall enlightenment that arises from the additional time philosophers use to perfect long articles (and for readers to read them) is in many cases less than what could be achieved by using our time in other ways.”

The following is a guest post* by Avram Hiller, associate professor of philosophy at Portland State University. [Note: Professor Hiller replies to the comments in this update to the post.]

Av Hiller, “Hart’s Cove Trail”

A Plea for More Short Journal Publications
by Avram Hiller

David Velleman, Neil Sinhababu, Eric Schliesser (and here), and Elizabeth Hannon all identify significant problems with the present state of journal publishing. I won’t detail their arguments, but I believe that most of the problems they discuss would be significantly remedied under a simple proposal: there should be many more short articles/letters/notes, of 2000 words or less, published in philosophy journals, either in existing journals or in new ones dedicated to short pieces, and we should have a disciplinary norm not to besmirch short pieces.

Scientific journals publish many short pieces; in Nature, for instance, “letters” (short pieces of roughly 1,500 words) outnumber longer “articles” more than 5 to 1. While scientific papers may require fewer words than philosophical ones, there still are many benefits to having more short philosophy publications.

The main thing to consider is the (intrinsic) reason for publication in the first place: to advance our understanding of an issue. My contention (which I won’t attempt to argue for here) is that there are many worthwhile insights that can be expressed rather briefly. We spend a great deal of time perfecting long pieces, or adding background information that most readers will understand anyway. The marginal increase in overall enlightenment that arises from the additional time philosophers use to perfect long articles (and for readers to read them) is in many cases less than what could be achieved by using our time in other ways (such as writing additional short pieces). There will always be a central place for longer pieces, but the publication of more short pieces may increase the overall quality of scholarship as more ideas are shared early on, allowing authors to adjust their views in response to early feedback and to find potential collaborators at early stages, and the discipline can move faster in worthwhile directions.

Some other benefits of this proposal:

(1) It should be much easier for referees and editors to review short pieces, thus significantly shortening turn-around times and making it easier on referees.

(2) Authors could spend less time per paper, thus reducing the risk wasting time on work that turns out not to be published.

(3) More papers could be published in the same amount of journal space, increasing acceptance rates. I have no objection to the existence of a number of top journals having super-low acceptance rates for long papers. But this practice leads to the problem that there are many highly reputable ideas that are not seeing the light of day in highly reputable journals.

(4) With many ideas published in shorter pieces, there may end up being fewer longer pieces submitted to journals, improving the review process at those places. Ideally, the writing of longer pieces would be reserved for ideas that the author has deemed worth the extra time to perfect in long form, perhaps because the idea has already been partly vetted in a short publication. (Journals that publish short pieces should permit authors to use ideas published in them as springboards for longer works.)

(5) This practice would be more inclusive. The publication of short pieces would help those at small institutions and lacking in personal connections more easily have their ideas be more broadly known and the resulting responses could help them improve upon their developing ideas. And philosophers with outside time limitations (e.g., from family or health issues) may find it much easier to compose shorter pieces in the hopes that later they can expand upon the ideas.

(6) We already spend a great deal of time philosophizing in ways that never get published, and there is a lot of value in those efforts that sometimes gets lost. We have informal conversations with philosophy friends, and give commentary at conferences. Many of these ideas have no chance of being published as full, independent papers, but deserve to be shared more broadly than with just those in the conference room. More generally, philosophy is often done dialogically, but dialogues typically happen behind closed doors. By encouraging the publication of short pieces, we can open up otherwise exclusive conversations to more participants.

One might object that this is just a proposal that there be more philosophy blogs. I welcome this comparison! Perhaps what I am proposing can be accomplished by a proliferation of blind peer-reviewed blogs. Not only would this increase quality and prestige of such posts, but blind review would democratize access to authoring posts in blogs.

Some philosophy journals already do publish shorter pieces and discussion notes. I applaud these—but there should be many more. And even the notable journals that publish short pieces typically do not publish pieces as short as what I have in mind. There is a precursor in the humanities that to some extent encompasses what I am proposing: Notes and Queries is a respected literature journal that publishes very short pieces. Additionally, most philosophy journals do not publish entirely negative pieces, even though negative or disconfirming pieces can have significant value; the importance of publishing negative results is becoming more recognized in the sciences, at least.

Finally, there are some potential problems for my proposal that I won’t address but will at least mark here: (1) It may compromise the blindness of reviewing longer and more prestigious follow-up pieces; (2) Journals that accept short pieces may be flooded with many low-quality submissions (current norms that require paper lengths of more than 5000 words function as an initial filter); (3) We may need updated disciplinary criteria for evaluating the professional significance of shorter publications. Suggestions on how to handle or avoid these problems are welcome.

Update: This post has occasioned some responses elsewhere: “We Need More Philosophy Blogs (yeah!); Or why Philosophy papers feel so long” by Eric Schliesser (Amsterdam) at Digressions & Impressions and “A plea for more types of publications” by Marcus Arvan (Tampa) at The Philosophers’ Cocoon.

Update 2: Professor Hiller has written up a response to some of the comments on his proposal:

Thanks for the responses! A few thoughts: This is one of those cases in which history has given us certain practices and institutions, and it is worth taking time to evaluate whether these practices and institutions serve us well in the current context (and whether they were the right ones to begin with). Does the distribution of length of published philosophy papers match properly with what the distribution of philosophy paper length ought to be nowadays? At the very least, I hope that this post spurs discussion about the question.

 Papers should be as long as the insights in them require. Some insights do indeed require lengthy treatment, and others don’t. My concern is that smallish but good insights are likely not to get published except if the author makes a significant effort to bolster them with lots of other material to meet institutional norms. That is very unfortunate.

 Jon Light suggests that this will be tougher on Editors than I had imagined. What he says seems right. I hope there are ways to overcome the issue he raises, and hope that publishers view the publication of short papers as a priority and thereby help provide the kind of institutional support needed. I think the toughest burden Light mentions would fall upon Managing Editors rather than Editors, so it is potentially a problem to be solved with more money for wages (for, likely, grad students).

About whether writing shorter pieces really is less time consuming, my sense is that taking 8000 words down to 6000 is horribly arduous. But if one aims for 2000 words from the outset, it is not so hard to write something short. How much easier is refereeing a short paper than a long paper? I myself sometimes get hung up when refereeing long papers. With short papers, one can give quick feedback and be done. So my hunch is that refereeing short papers is easier than refereeing longer papers even disproportionate to their brevity. But that is largely an empirical question and perhaps my own experience is not the same as others.

Steve points to an important issue. There are good reasons to try to be more inclusive with our citations. To me, it is an open question whether short papers would help or harm that aim. On the one hand, they may obviate the perceived need to cite Important Papers written by Important Philosophers, as a paper may just be on a small point written by a not-so-well-known philosopher. On the other hand, it may give an excuse to ignore papers written by not-so-well-known philosophers.

Another issue raised is whether most journals in fact publish, or at least are happy to publish, short pieces. I have not done a systematic study, but my own sense is that major journals other than Thought and Analysis only rarely publish short papers. GJ says the following journals routinely publish short pieces – take a look for yourself at how many are under 3K, let alone 2K, words: ErkAJPRatioPhil StudiesPPQ. (Even most papers in Analysis nowadays are over 3K words.) It is an interesting question whether the lack of short pieces is due to authors not submitting or to journals not soliciting/accepting. My own sense is that journals that review short pieces typically demand more from authors in revisions, or just reject them outright. But I’d be very happy to hear otherwise from journal editors. (The comments below would be a good place!) And if Chris Stephens is right, then we should spread the good news loud and wide throughout the discipline to send short papers to journals.

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