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07/12/2017

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Trevor Hedberg

One solution to this problem would be for more journals to adopt standards like the Australasian Journal of Philosophy -- where the standards for acceptance go up proportionally to the paper's length, such that a 15,000-word paper would have to effectively be as good as two independent 7500-word papers to justify being published. But an alternative solution would be for a few journals to emerge that specialized in publishing longer pieces of philosophy -- journals that, say, had a word minimum of 10,000 words. These would effectively fill the opposite niche of journals like Ratio and Analysis, which are clearly designed for pieces that are shorter than average. I'm not sure that would necessarily be the best solution, but I think it's at least worth considering.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Trevor: Thanks for weighing in! I'm all for both options. However, I think the second option alone would be insufficient. A new journal or two only allowing longer submissions would be fantastic, and an unique venue to be sure! However, by itself that would only give authors of long papers another journal or two to submit to--thus not much addressing the larger problem, which is that authors of long papers have comparatively few venues they can submit to (again, with 90+% rejection rates, chances are one's paper will be rejected from a number of journals before it accepted--in which case another journal or two may not help that much).

For these reasons, although I would very much welcome a specialty journal or two like that, I'm very much inclined to favor the first option--that of journals in general adopting AJP's approach.

Craig

For performative reasons, I've not fully read this post. But it seems from your review of the journals that you've gotten your way. Virtually all of the journals will publish a paper of 15k -- if it meets their higher standards. Hard limits are the rare exception, far, far from the norm.

Also, and again, I just skimmed your post, but: I'm not convinced by your response to the bad-writer or the cost objections. In both cases, I think you are overly confident in journals' abilities to set and authors' abilities and willingness to respond to incentives.

Moreover, I offer a new objection: the rare-exceptions-don't-get-exceptions objection. Rules are not cheap to construct or implement, in terms of time, attention, potential error, etc. This is especially true with the personalities that populate philosophy. So a complication to a rule which is likely to be beneficial only in very, very few cases is likely to be overly costly. Just to play with some numbers... Imagine that there are 10,000 potential submissions in a given year. Imagine that 15 of them are long potential submissions. Imagine that of the 15, 8 could find serious review under the extant policies. Imagine that of the 7, 2 are worth publication. It's believable to me that changing the rules for all 10,000 submissions to catch those 2 publications is just not going to be worth it. Perfect is the enemy of the good, I say.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Craig: Thanks for expressing your concerns. You may be right about costs and your new objection--though I'm not sure (I suspect it is hard to measure these things).

I mostly posted on this because I would at least like to start a conversation on whether these objections are persuasive, given the good that might be achieved by raising word limits. Many people have expressed the wish in recent years to see more ambitious philosophy published--with the Journal of the APA even going so far as to make a point of encouraging more ambitious work in their editorial statement. My basic thought is: if there are enough people out there (like me) who would like more venues for longer work, then perhaps the "rare exception" isn't *really* that rare of an exception, and current word-limits perhaps stifling a lot of good work (thus making the costs of the status quo perhaps much higher than your new objection implicitly presupposes).

In any case, I wouldn't say that I have "gotten my way." Although there are indeed a good number of journals willing to consider 15K manuscripts, even that limit is not that high. It's not high enough to include my 19K-word paper on free will or the 19-20K word papers by other people I referenced in the OP. To be frank, I found myself in a very hard position with that paper. After getting a desk-reject at Phil Review, it occurred to me that there were only a handful of other good places I could possibly send it--so I sent it to Phil Forum. If you look at the list of generalist journals, only 2 of the top-5 and only 3 of the top-10 accept articles of that length. Things are a bit better with the top-20 as a whole (roughly half have no upper limit, at least in principle)--but that still dramatically restricts the number of places one can send such a long paper.

BM

One of the most significant costs of word limits hasn't been mentioned: poorer scholarship. Particularly when the word limit includes notes. For instance, since Mind's 8K word limit includes notes (I believe), authors are encouraged to be less than completely thorough with respect to their discussion of the existing literature. If you're writing on a popular topic and aren't simply making a minor point, the quality of your scholarship will very likely suffer if you try to stay under 8K.

UK reader

To be honest, I can think of few papers I've read recently that couldn't have been cut by 15% without loss.

There's a knack to expressing complicated ideas concisely, one that philosophers should aim to cultivate in themselves, IMO. If people publish ever longer papers then ever fewer papers will get read. (I do recognise, though, that sometimes writing at great length is justified. I just think this is unusual.)

Just my two cents, FWIW.

Mark Z

Here's another objection. Accepting too many long papers will mean, given publisher restrictions, that other good papers will not get published or have a much harder time getting published. If there is a fixed number of pages available, there will be a downward pressure on the number of articles as articles themselves get larger. I would think that the added diversity of articles outweighs permitting (which may amount to encouraging) longer articles. It may actually mean that people will start submitting much shorter articles to get squeezed in the space between larger articles. The journal ecosystem might change in ways that may squeeze the "middle size-class." I wonder if that is a good or bad thing.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Mark Z: That's a fair concern, but I'm not entirely persuaded.

First, if standards are much higher for long articles (as I have allowed they should be), they should be published just in case their quality *justifies* taking up that extra journal space. This is not dissimilar to space in a museum. If a giant mural is going to take up an entire wall, it should be worth all that space. Further, on that note, good journal editors would be those making these judgments--on whether a single long article is worth the space of two normal-length articles.

Second, it is unclear to me whether there are enough longer articles to exert the kind of market-pressure you mention. Most people I know don't even like *writing* longer articles--so I think journals allowing longer articles might not have that potentially negative result.

Finally, as print journals become increasingly rare (which seems to me likely given the cost publishers incur for publishing hard copies), I think concerns about "taking up journal pages" are likely to fade, as there is no such issue with online-only formats.

Amanda

I want the opposite! Most papers I read are wayyy too long, and spend time discussing extraneous issues. I guess I would be okay with in principle being no limit - because sure every once in a while a long paper is warranted. However, I think most papers could be under 8k and not lose their value. Here are more concerns:

1.One of the biggest problems in philosophy (I think) is how long it takes to get a paper reviewed. Long papers only make this worse
2. There is already too much literature to keep up with. If papers are longer, this will be harder. What follows is less established people are more likely to get their work ignored. Why? Because people only have time to read so much work, and if work is longer they are likely to read a lower number of different philosophers. It is simple math: there is only so much time to spend reading the work of other philosophers. If I read 100,000 words a week, I can either read 10x10,000 word papers or 5 20,000 word papers. The first option allows me to read the work of (up to) 10 philosophers while the second only 5.
3. If a piece is longer persons are more likely to do a shoddy job reading it. People get tired and pressed for time, hence by the end of a 20k paper it is likely many people are not paying attention.

Marcus Arvan

Hi Amanda: okay, but see my discussions of the dislike, always-possible-to-shorten, and cost objections.

First, I don't think philosophical discussion should be driven by what you or any group of people want. Philosophy should not answer primarily to what is popular. It should be driven by the quality of arguments. Some good arguments are short, others long. Restricting submission standards to short word-lengths preemptively preclude long arguments from consideration, thus arbitrarily standing in the way of the publication of good arguments.

Second, you note that it is usually possible to shorten papers. But I granted that! All I suggested is that it is not always possible, and that in cases where it isn't authors shouldn't be arbitrarily punished by not allowing them to submit.

Third, I do not think raising word limits is likely to have the effects you envision. First, as you illustrate yourself, many people don't *like* longer papers, and so don't even bother writing them. Second, I have seen absolutely no relationship between paper length and review times. I have had 3K word papers under review for over 11 months and 15-19K word papers reviewed in just 2-3 months. Review times in our discipline are slow because of disciplinary culture. There are other disciplines with far more submissions than ours with far shorter review times. I myself have heard many people say that they just put off reviews for months, whereas other more conscientious reviewers do the job quickly. We should not punish authors for poor reviewing norms. We should instead hold ourselves and reviewers to good turnaround times. Reviewers of long papers could also be instructed to not spend an inordinately longer time on long papers, just writing enough to justify a verdict.

Finally, as I mentioned in the OP, someone who doesn't want to review a long paper--or who doesn't think they can do so within a decent period of time--has every right to refuse to review. Finally, once again, there are already journals with no upper-bound limit, and they seem to work just fine (or no worse, at any rate, than many journals with upper limits)!

S

Marcus,

I definitely see your worry. If most of the better journals impose such low hard limits then it does rule out a certain kind of philosophy. But shouldn't it be the case that some journals do have hard limits? If it's a self-conscious decision to publish "nuts and bolts" philosophy then why should we object? I think it's good to have a some journals like Analysis out there that do just that because they do take it as their mission to publish a certain kind of philosophy. (Maybe I say this because recently I seem to be having a lot of ideas for papers on contained but significant topics that lend themselves well to short papers). I certainly wouldn't want to see Analysis start accepting papers of any length. In fact, I'd honestly like to see a few more venues for really short papers of the sort they publish. I was really happy to hear about the new journal "Thought" that also focuses on short papers

On the other hand it strikes me as very problematic if many of the best journals are adopting 8,000 word limits. There are some debates where I can't even imagine that an 8,000 word paper could make much of a contribution. And you're right that imposing strict word limits seems like an implicit decision to downplay or ignore those debates and the sort of philosophy that deals with them.

In fact, there are whole areas of philosophy where it's hard to do much with a short paper, such as the history of philosophy. Given that you have to discuss both the relevant textual evidence and the most popular interpretations to even start in on most historical debates you usually spend a good 2,000-3,000 words just setting the stage. And many times you have to also use some space to set up the historical context. That makes it really worrying for me that history of philosophy journals are imposing increasingly strict limits. The British Journal for the History has a fairly hard (we may or may not make exceptions basically) 8,000 word (10,000) with notes limit, History of Philosophy Quarterly has an 8,000 word limit, and the Journal of the History of Ideas has a hard 9,000 word limit. The Journal for the History of Philosophy is the most permissive of the lot, but it allows only 14,000 words. I'm not sure if Archiv has a limit but their articles tend to be short from what I can tell. Anyway I think it's hard to do interesting work in the history of philosophy within those constraints, and it's one of the reasons I've pretty much stopped doing work in the history of philosophy even though it used to be my main focus.

Marcus Arvan

Hi S: Thanks for weighing in! I'm glad we seem to agree on the whole, but here are a few thoughts...

You write: "If most of the better journals impose such low hard limits then it does rule out a certain kind of philosophy. But shouldn't it be the case that some journals do have hard limits? If it's a self-conscious decision to publish "nuts and bolts" philosophy then why should we object?"

My reply: I'm not opposed to an occasional specialty journal (like Analysis or Thought) having special, low-word limits--for the same reason I wouldn't be opposed to a specialty journal that only permitted very long (>15K) papers. As long as the special cases were the exception rather than the rule, I would have no problem with it--for in that case authors of long and short papers would generally be able to submit to many other journals. The thing I object to is the status quo, where anywhere between 50-80% of journals (at different ranking levels) *don't* allow very long papers.

You continue: "I think it's good to have a some journals like Analysis out there that do just that because they do take it as their mission to publish a certain kind of philosophy. (Maybe I say this because recently I seem to be having a lot of ideas for papers on contained but significant topics that lend themselves well to short papers). I certainly wouldn't want to see Analysis start accepting papers of any length. In fact, I'd honestly like to see a few more venues for really short papers of the sort they publish. I was really happy to hear about the new journal "Thought" that also focuses on short papers."

My reply: I think it's good for journals like Analysis and Thought to exist too (though they are not my favorite journals to read, given how narrow their papers are). The relevant point is that Analysis and Thought do not place undue hardships on anyone. If I write a 2-3K word paper, I can submit it to not only Analysis or Thought: I can submit it to *any* journal, as I don't of any journal that has a lower-end limit for how short papers can be. The problem is that the opposite is true for authors of longer papers. Not only do we not have a "specialty long-paper" journal to submit to. Long papers cannot even be submitted to somewhere between 50-80% of journals (depending on ranking level).

Anyway, I'm glad you think 8K is too low. We are definitely in agreement there. But I don't think the issue is at all limited to certain areas of philosophy, such as the history of philosophy. I write articles in ethics and political philosophy, and for what I'm trying to do in most of my recent papers, 8K is an impossibly short limit to try to reach. The last five papers I've drafted are all over 10K words, with two of them around 15K--and the last two revise-and-resubmits I've done had to be lengthened to around 10K to address reviewer concerns. In other words, I'm not writing long papers "just because." It just so happens that the recent arguments I've been making require a substantial amount of space to make.

Once again, I suspect there may be real differences in taste here. You indicated that you'd like to see more journals like Analysis or Thought. While I'd like to see a "replies-only" journal or two, by and large my tastes are very different! I tend to find articles in Analysis and Thought far too narrow for my liking, and they are probably two of the journals that I read the least.

Again, I don't expect most people to share my tastes--but that's only because I think taste should be irrelevant here! I don't think philosophy should be beholden to any individual or group's tastes. I think it should instead be advanced by the quality of arguments. If a short paper has a good argument, it should be published; if a long paper has a good argument, it should be published. And so I think we should want journals to be receptive to both kinds of submissions!

Amanda

Marcus I said that in principle people should be allowed to write a long paper, because every once in a while a paper is worthy of being long. But if that happens I would want a habit of maybe only having one long paper per issue. I guess it is really an emprical question how many people would submit long papers if their were no rule, but my guess is a lot. I find most people think their own paper is worthy of being long, but they do not want to read long papers written by others.

Second, I disagree that philosophy should solely be about the arguments. That might be true if we lived in a world of unlimited time and resources, but we do not. Above all, I see philosophy as a conversation about important issues in life. The emphasis on the former sentence is conversation. It is simply a fact of life that we have limited time, and in so far as philosophy is having a conversation we should respect the time of our conversants. This is not about what is "popular", and I think that is an uncharitable interpretation. I want lots of people joining the conversation. More people (because so many people have lots of responsibilities) will read short papers as opposed to longer ones. Even more, each person will read more papers total if they are short, because we all only read a certain number of words.

Let me stress this argument is not about "not liking" long papers. It is about being a human with limited time and resources. We can only do so much. And my argument (and my guess most people who take this position) is not just papers CAN be shorter. Of course that is a dumb argument. Most papers CAN be written in purple ink. That argument is short hand for what is implied: they can be shorter and they are better and make their point more persuasive if they are. When I say most papers "can" be 8k, I am suggesting they are BETTER papers (better philosophy) when they are shorter rather than longer.The reason they are better is that extraneous information that does not help the argument hurts the argument.

Now you might disagree with me that philosophy is primarily a conversation. If you do, then our disagreement bottoms out in that. But given my perspective, I think word length is very important. And once again, yes, there are exceptions, and occasionally papers should be longer. And I am fine with journals in principle having no limit.

Lastly, I want to object to those who suggest short papers are "nuts and bolts" papers. I am not a fan of nuts and bolt papers (although, they sometimes have a place). I think great papers about big ideas can be very short. Gettier is not the only example -many of what I consider the best and most innovative papers are under 10k words. The majority of papers I write are big idea papers, and most of them are under 10k as well.

UK reader

In total agreement with Amanda here re. short papers not having to be 'narrow' at all! What about Clark and Chalmers 'The Extended Mind' or Evans 'Can There Be Vague Objects?' or myriad other less influential articles?

Marcus Arvan

Hi Amanda: sorry for interpreting you uncharitably - my apologies!

I think we'll have to agree to disagree on whether philosophy should be about the arguments. While recognizing your (good) point that people have limited time and resources, my argument is merely that authors should be *permitted* to make a case to reviewers, editors, and readers that their paper is worth their time and resources. That's all! I don't disagree that philosophy is a conversation. I just think certain types of conversation shouldn't be preemptively shut down (which is what I think journal word-limits function to do). Once again, I just think authors of long papers should have the same opportunity as everyone else to make a case for what they want to add to the conversation!

Fortunately, you seem open to that, as you say you think people should be able to write long papers--just that there should maybe be a limit on one long paper per journal issue. Which I'm totally cool with! So, the above disagreement aside, it seems to me we're fairly on the same page.

Indeed, I even agree with you that most papers shouldn't be long, most long papers would be better shorter--and so on. Once again, totally agree. I just want to keep pushing the more basic point that journals should at least permit longer submissions rather than preemptively prohibit them with a hard word-limit (which you also seem to agree with, viz. "I am fine with journals in principle having no limit").

I also agree with your nice point that short papers are not always "nuts and bolts" pieces. I didn't mean to imply that they all are. As you nicely point out, some very short papers have made some very big philosophical points (and made them well). I just think these types of papers are clearly the exception rather than the norm. Short papers like Gettier's and Clark & Chalmers' papers can make very big points--but short papers like that are exceedingly rare.

In any case, while there still may be things we disagree about here (and apologies again for misinterpreting you), I think we may be closer on these issues than it might have initially appeared (due in part, no doubt, to my misunderstanding you). :)

Marcus Arvan

UK Reader: I agree too! (see above)

Tim

Here are two further proposals that we might consider, made by way of analogies:
Analogy 1: word limits on papers are like time limits on exams.
Analogy 2: word limits on papers are like size limits on mosaics.

Brief discussion of each:

Analogy 1:

We put word limits on papers for lots of reasons. One of them, relevant to the case at hand, is this: there are some tasks that, if you cannot accomplish them (relatively) quickly, you are objectively not proficient at. We've all taught logic (probably) and constructing derivations in a formal system is such a task.

The proposal is this: if you cannot write a short paper about topic X, then you haven't understood topic X well enough. I think this is good justification for word limits. Does it justify *all* philosophy having word limits? That's less clear; I'll leave it to discussion.

Analogy 2:

By a `smaller' mosaic, I mean one with fewer pieces. If you think about it, you'll recognize that conveying the same image with fewer pieces is a harder task. If one can do it, then one is a better artist than someone who requires more pieces to convey the same image.

Proposal: philosophy is the same. Conveying the same information in fewer words is the mark of a good philosopher; journals set word limits to encourage good philosophy.

BM

Journals don't limit word counts to encourage good philosophy; they do it to make the jobs of editors and reviewers easier. Shorter philosophy papers are not typically better, they are typically insufficiently thorough (unless they're making only a minor point).

Journals should only have strict word limits if the costs of that policy are less severe than the costs of not having word limits. The costs of not having word limits that people have identified are relatively minor compared to the costs of strict word limits: first, it encourages poor scholarship; second, many extremely important papers would not be published.

Marcus Arvan

Tim: Thanks for weighing in, but (big surprise!) I'm with BM on this.

I'm not at all persuaded that two of your central claims are true--namely:

"The proposal is this: if you cannot write a short paper about topic X, then you haven't understood topic X well enough."

"Conveying the same information in fewer words is the mark of a good philosopher; journals set word limits to encourage good philosophy."

I have to confess to being a bit surprised just how often philosophers are willing to assert bald generalizations like these.

Sure, most of the time, if you cannot write a short paper on X, you haven't understood X well enough. But most of the time is not always, and there are plenty of papers that legitimately need to be long in order to make an ambitious argument on X (I give some examples in the OP, and there are many others).

By a similar token, sure, conveying "the same" information in fewer words is a mark of a good philosophers. But the very point I've been trying to make is that some arguments are sufficiently ambitious that the same information *cannot* be presented in a fashion that satisfies standard journal limits (which, again, often wastes everyone's time when referees give a revise-and-resubmit requiring the author to stick back in a ton of information that they cut out just to meet a word-limit--which happens all the time!).

As I noted in the OP, I am all for journals encouraging good philosophy. I am even all for them *encouraging* shorter papers, by explicitly noting that longer papers are held to much higher standards. However, setting strict word limits doesn't "encourage" shorter papers. It demands them, preemptively prohibiting authors from even being able to make a case to reviewers, editors, and readers that their paper is a legitimate exception to the generalizations you mention.

S

Marcus,

I do think we agree on the whole. I'm not sure that you disagree, but I do want to emphasize that I think that short word limits are a decision for a certain kind of philosophy and it goes beyond the "lumper/splitter" distinction. I think one can do a certain kind of ethics or political philosophy in a short paper, but only a certain kind. You can very well do the sort of very idealized and abstract moral and political phil that one finds in say Kamm, Thomson, and Nozick in a short paper. But one couldn't do work like say that of Walzer, Williams, or even Rawls in papers of that length. In ethics and political philosophy the short paper limit is a de facto decision for a very particular kind of work.

I also want to note that a lot of the decisions editors make encourages needless bloat. One of the reasons it's so hard to say anything interesting in a 7,500 word paper is that referees often use the "not enough discussion of the relevant literature" line as a reason to reject. So we often find ourselves spending a needless amount of time covering ourselves by trying to at least mention every moderately well known piece on a topic even when that work is only tangentially related to our main point. I'd really like to see a rule that unless the author is making a point that has been made elsewhere the "not enough discussion of the relevant literature" line can only be grounds for revision and not rejection.

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