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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Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
2 years ago

I could not agree more with this proposal. Keep it brief! Say it in as few words as possible not in as many words as possible! I have always liked to write philosophy this way but in recent years I have taken it even further. My recent book Philosophical Provocations explicitly advocates and practices this method of composition.Report

lbr
lbr
2 years ago

This assumes it takes less time to write a short article than a long one. But go ask a scientist who has authored a “letter” to Nature if that is truly the case. It’s hard to be pithy!Report

Smith&Jones
Smith&Jones
Reply to  lbr
2 years ago

In reply, even if Pascal’s saying about letters were generally true and it took more time to write a short piece than a long one, readers would still benefit. Since, hopefully, a great deal of our time is spent reading what other people have to say, these are benefits we should all care about. All that said, given that long pieces in philosophy are often also very highly polished, I doubt the adage holds. As a limiting case, on average, it takes less time to write an Analysis piece than an OUP monograph. Assuming the same level of stylistic polish and philosophical quality, the longer an article gets, the longer it takes to write. Report

Colin McGinn
Colin McGinn
2 years ago

That’s why people should work on their pithiness.Report

T
T
2 years ago

Looks like this has been discussed before: http://dailynous.com/2015/06/30/should-philosophy-articles-be-shorter/ . What’s the main barrier of adoption?Report

Smith&Jones
Smith&Jones
Reply to  T
2 years ago

Someone has to start a new prestige journal. That takes a good deal of work. Then, for the journal to survive, everyone else will actually have to take these sorts of publications seriously enough to reward them with academia points. Two barriers there, but not sure what the biggest barrier is. Report

Cam
Cam
2 years ago

I agree completely with Hiller. Articles with the concision of good blog posts would be great. As a more widespread practice, I don’t think there’s any question that they’d make the advancement of knowledge in our field more efficient.Report

Smith&Jones
Smith&Jones
2 years ago

The discipline as a whole would clearly benefit from a good microphilosophy journal or two.
One potential plus which Avram mentioned and I would like to emphasize is the way a micro journal could benefit philosophers with certain health problems.
Visual impairments and other print disabilities can make writing and editing a long piece extremely burdensome. For reasons irrelevant to core philosophical competence, a short piece will be much more manageable to get down and polish up for some philosophers.

A micro journal doesn’t fix the print-centric ableism in philosophy and academia more generally (publications count infinitely more than conferences for example), but would be a welcome option for some disabled philosophers.Report

Matt
Reply to  Smith&Jones
2 years ago

The discipline as a whole would clearly benefit from a good microphilosophy journal or two.

We’ve already got _Analysis_, and _Ratio_ also publishes lots of short papers. _Thought_, though newer, also focuses on short articles. Some other journals have sections devoted to shorter articles, though often in the form of replies. Is it clear that more than this is needed? Report

Smith&Jones
Smith&Jones
Reply to  Matt
2 years ago

Yes.
Additional micro venues would allow for more good short work to be published and hopefully gives people less of an incentive to stretch an idea into long form when short form would suffice. More benefits mentioned in the post above. Is there a reason to think that two dedicated short form journals are just the right number?Report

Matt
Reply to  Smith&Jones
2 years ago

Well, it’s three, not two, but this is an area where, if there’s lots of good short pieces, and demand for venues to publish them, I’d think it would be possible to come up with the venues. And maybe people will! I’m not opposed to it. But, no one is stopping people from doing so, so the lack of people doing so is some indication that there’s not a lot of more need for it. Report

Smith&Jones
Smith&Jones
Reply to  Matt
2 years ago

An alternative explanation: new journals are very hard to start, only a small number of people who’ve landed somewhere towards the top of the ivory tower have much of a shot at doing so successfully, and there is little fiscal or professional reward for all the work.Report

Matt
Reply to  Smith&Jones
2 years ago

It’s true that new journals are hard to start, especially if they are going to be successful. They are a lot of work. But, it’s not true that “only a small number of people who’ve landed somewhere towards the top of the ivory tower have much of a shot at doing so successfully.” For a very clear counter-example, consider _The Journal of Moral Philosophy_, a very good journal that publishes work from top people and has a less than 10% acceptance rate. It was started by Thom Brooks when he was still a grad student at Sheffield. As with many things in life, no doubt that starting a journal is easier if you’re a well-known person with lots of institutional resources, but it’s certainly not the only way. Being willing to do huge amounts of work (like Brooks did) is probably more important. Report

Jacob
Jacob
Reply to  Matt
2 years ago

The point wasn’t that no prestige poor person can start a journal, the point was that the journal is more likely to be successful if started by prestige rich people. Glad it worked out for Thom Brooks, hope it will work out for someone else trying to start a micro journal.Report

Bennett Obua
Bennett Obua
2 years ago

I just paid to publish a paper in a journal. I had to pay double the publication charge because the manuscript was long. I was giving the option to reduce the number of pages to about half but I chose not to. The reason is simple, in reducing the number of pages I knew I would be removing some vital information. Probably this is because it is a paper in an agricultural journal. Sometimes in trying to write short pieces you omit some useful ingredients in a paper. That defeats the aim of writing the paper in the first instance.Report

Curious
Curious
Reply to  Bennett Obua
2 years ago

What journal makes you pay to publish, let alone pay per page?Report

Kenny Easwaran
Reply to  Curious
2 years ago

Most journals in most academic fields have publication charges. Philosophy is unusual in that most journals just impose size limits and use editorial discretion to determine whether a paper is worth the length, rather than asking authors (or more usually, their funding agencies and institutions) to put their money where their words are.Report

Daniel Kaufman
Reply to  Bennett Obua
2 years ago

Lol. What a racket our profession is turning into.Report

Michael Brent
2 years ago

“Je pense, donc je suis” seems terse enoughReport

Steve
Steve
2 years ago

I take it that shorter articles would tend to be less heavy on long literature reviews and so would go against the calls for more citation-heavy philosophy writing of the sort that some people have been making in the name of increasing the inclusivity of the discipline.

I don’t think that would be a bad thing: While I endorse efforts to make academic philosophy much more inclusive than it is, I think that pushing published philosophical writing to include many more citations overall than it often does now is not the best way to go about it. (Citing a wider *variety* of people [i.e., not just established philosophers at R-1 universities who are of a particular gender, race, ethnicity] is a different matter than having a lot of citations *total* in a given published piece.)

In some cases, the quality of a piece of philosophy is inversely proportional to the number of sources it cites. Perhaps shorter articles would have a greater ratio of interesting philosophy to going-through-the-motions literature review than longer articles.Report

Jon Light
Jon Light
2 years ago

If I’m a journal editor–which I have been–and am told I’ve got 60,000 words for an issue, it’s a lot less institutional work to publish 6x 10,000-word papers than 20 x 3,000-word papers. Logging, author correspondence, finding reviewers, processing them, and so on. You’ve effectively just tripled my workload! (No, most of this stuff doesn’t really scale as papers get shorter–reviewers would be the obvious example.) And *reviewers* are really the publishing bottleneck, so you’ve gotta find a way to offset that. Plus reviewer fatigue as everyone’s going to start getting more requests.

So, as a general idea, this doesn’t sound so bad. But I think if you really drill down into the logistics, there’s going to be some obstacles. (And maybe those can all be re-structured, too, but the point is we can’t just change the word length without having a bunch of downstream consequences.)Report

Sikander
Sikander
2 years ago

I love this, wholeheartedly agree, and have made a similar proposal myself. Professional philosophy should become more practical not in the sense that it should talk about more political, etc. issues, but in the sense that doing it should not be such a neurotic experience and the result shouldn’t be something so deadening and dry.

Make philosophy more spiritually in tune, IMO.Report

Heath White
Heath White
2 years ago

We could compromise. Keep the approximate page length and idea content of a standard long-form article but shorten the number of words, by adopting the German convention of creating very long words to express complicated ideas. But take this even farther than Hegel. Then everyone would be happy.Report

Dale E Miller
Reply to  Heath White
2 years ago

In a word, this idea is interestingbutultimatelyimpractical.Report

Dale E Miller
2 years ago

One nice feature of this idea is that there would be a better fit between the length of papers that (some) journals were looking for and the length of papers at our major conferences. Unlike other disciplines where presenters summarize 8,000 or 10,000 word papers, philosophers have to submit short, polished papers just to get on the program at the APA. But the opportunities to publish work of that length as is are limited.

A related thought is that it would be nice if there were more venues in philosophy for replies and exchanges between authors and commentators. Many journals don’t publish replies and discussion notes at all, whereas others do but only if they published the original article as well. At Utilitas we do publish replies to papers in other journals, but really only if the topic is consequentialism. I believe that JESP does so for ethics articles generally. But I’m not aware of any general purpose venue for authors and commentators to engage in exchanges around their work, regardless of where the initial piece appeared.Report

Eddy Nahmias
Eddy Nahmias
Reply to  Dale E Miller
2 years ago

Right, i was going to make the point Dale makes here. Avram’s excellent idea would not only make life easier for people, including students, by allowing them to write short, sharp, clear papers for conference presentation that could then be sent out for publication, but would also potentially have the effect of making conference papers and presentations better, because people would try to write better short papers in the hopes of getting them published. Report

Chris Stephens
Chris Stephens
Reply to  Eddy Nahmias
2 years ago

Maybe this point has already been made, but throughout this conversation people seem to be under the impression that regular journals won’t publish (or aren’t happy to receive) short papers. Whenever I hear from editors of such journals (feel free to speak up!) they always say they’re delighted to receive short papers. Mind, for example, has published a number of short papers (e.g, think of many classic Roy Sorensen type papers, or Boolos’ proof of Godel’s incompleteness theorem, etc.). Most journals have maximum limits, not minimum (I’m not aware of ANY explicitly stated minimum word lengths for journals – is this wrong?)

I suspect that the reason most regular journals don’t submit more short papers is because authors don’t send many in. So you can do something about this! Take those nice, short, 3,000 word papers and submit them!

I suspect it is often harder to write good short papers, as others have remarked.
as Cicero remarked “If I had more time, I’d write you more briefly”Report

Animal Symbolicum
Animal Symbolicum
2 years ago

I too think that shorter papers are a good idea, though I worry that the plea is animated by the commonly absorbed but profoundly mistaken idea that philosophy is a science, an idea that got us here in the first place. (By “here” I mean the position of having to diagnose and cure what ails our journal culture). I worry that the shorter-paper plea will only reinforce the illusion that philosophy’s goal is to produce “results” that get added to some stockpile, replacing older “results” we may then safely regard as false. The shorter-paper plea is then seen as a plea for allowing the publication of more incremental “results” — including, notably, “negative results” or “disconfirmations,” pieces that are just so much grist for the counter-example mill, so much material for the reputation-making machine.

Hiller is much more careful and insightful than the cynical cartoon I just drew, of course. He’s exactly right that much of what is valuable in philosophical inquiry gets all-too-briefly embodied in informal conversations after conference presentations, in hallways, or in emails — and, I would add, in classrooms — and that it would be wonderful to give those conversations a recognized, more permanent, and more public forum. I assume that Hiller and I (and many, many others, I’m sure) are kindred spirits in our sense that much of our philosophical education comes from these smaller, unfussy interactions, and I share the wish that we could let others in on them.

In my view, writing shorter papers would introduce some much-needed discipline into philosophy — genuine discipline, not the faux-discipline or pseudo-rigor of articulating principles and giving them names, of formulating claims in some formal language or other, of articulating and responding to imagined objections one-by-one, of maneuvering through responses to responses to responses to responses, of foisting and evading burdens of proof, of representing whole ways of seeing and living as -ismically-named hypotheses, or of casting theories in the (trivially achieved) form of deductive argument.

No, the discipline I’m thinking of is the discipline to hit the appropriate balance of sophistication, subtlety, accessibility, vividness, pointedness, naturalness, originality, modesty, ambition. One place to hone this discipline, I submit, is in the classroom.

The discipline required in the classroom is somewhat different from that required in the sort of short journal article I’m envisioning, but there are important similarities. In the classroom, you must hit that sweet spot where reasonable accessibility, practical significance, vivid memorability, illuminating brevity, and philosophical sophistication converge. The idea has to be rich but not overfilling, brief but not dense, memorable but not simplistic, sophisticated but not technical, and the discussion can’t involve too many moves into the dialectic without sacrificing accessibility, absorbability, or pointedness. The sweet spot in the classroom will be located some place different from where the journal article’s sweet spot will be. But the basic constraints are the same.

The author of the short article I’m envisioning must have a sense of appropriate granularity of focus, as you might have to have a sense of the appropriate distance from which to appreciate a tapestry: too close, and you see only the threads; too far, and you see only the picture; just right, and you see how the picture emerges from the threads. And, of course, all of this also requires an understanding and charity on the part of the reader as to the sorts of choices the author is compelled to make in order to achieve this balance.Report

Rick
Rick
2 years ago

To work, this will require at least two things: reviewers to stop asking authors to address more objections or other papers that bear on the topic; everybody having more background on a particular subject. The meat of any paper I write is rarely more than a couple pages long, but adequate background + meticulously considering objections will be the overwhelming majority every time. This is especially true in any sort of naturalistic philosophy which trades on a lot of science: scientific literature *and* philosophical literature must both be examined. Report

David Wallace
David Wallace
2 years ago

Be cautious with the comparison with science papers, because mostly they report on research that has been done, whereas in a philosophy journal, the article itself is the research.

An admittedly extreme example: the Nature letter reporting the discovery of the Higgs boson is four pages long, but it’s reporting the result of decades of work by thousands of people, at a cost of billions. Report

LM
LM
2 years ago

Great idea. Just to note that linguistics has an established category for short articles, which are called ‘squibs’ in the field and represent a productive and important segment of research in linguistics. In addition to journals dedicated to squibs (like Analysis), many major linguistics journals also have a dedicated squib section.Report

GJ
GJ
2 years ago

Erkenntnis is another (top) journal that prefers to publish short pieces. AJP, Phil Studies, Ratio, and PPQ publish them routinely (as do countless lesser journals). Analysis and Thought have an explicit mandate *only* to publish short pieces. Only a handful of journals seem to require the bloated, self-important stuff that bogs everything down. The problem here seems overstated.Report

Shane Ralston
2 years ago

I totally agree. I presented a 2000 word paper (“Imperialism is Far Too Easy: A Deweyan Critique of U.S. Foreign Policy”) at a conference in Dublin last October. The audience response was terrific. Then the conference organizers decided to publish select papers in a journal special issue. But the length had to be 5000 words. I struggled to extend what was otherwise an excellent paper until it turned into a horrific mess that was of course rejected. The irony is that the 5000 word conference papers-turned-articles are less likely to ever be read since they’ll be behind a paywall and most people just don’t have the time to invest in reading such long essays unless they bear directly on their present research. And my short paper is still available for anyone to read for free at my Academia.edu page: https://www.academia.edu/31026664/Imperialism_is_Far_Too_Easy_A_Deweyan_Critique_of_U.S._Foreign_PolicyReport

Anna
Anna
2 years ago

Perhaps I have had bad luck, but my experience with turning in short papers to journals other than Thought and Analysis is that they are desk-rejected. I have had many responses along the lines of – “we do not publish papers under 4k words” or “we do not publish notes” (what I turned in was not meant to be a “note”). Would love to hear from journal editors that are okay with pieces under 4k.Report