I had a spirited (and surprisingly contentious!) discussion on social media the other week on journal word-limits. The conversation began with a friend of mine--a well-published and respected philosopher in his AOS--noting that he had to cut down a 16K word article to meet a 7K word-limit. As someone who tends to write long pieces myself, I noted that what typically happens in cases like this is one cuts one's paper down to meet a limit only to find out 5 or 6+ months later--after the paper goes through peer-review--that reviewers advocate either rejection or revise-and-resubmit because the paper fails to deal with problems the longer version of it did deal with. In revise-and-resubmit cases, this often requires the author to put back in material that was in the longer version to begin with, requiring authors, reviewers, and editors to do more work that they might have had to do if the author had just been able to submit the better, longer version to begin with!
In other words, in my experience, journal word-limits often end up wasting everyone's time. They make authors waste a ton of time cutting down articles, and they waste reviewers' and editors' time by having them review--and, in revise-and-resubmits, review multiple times--inferior, shorter versions of what were previously better, longer papers. Because I think good philosophy papers come in many different shapes and sizes, and the most relevant thing is whether a paper is any good, I'm inclined to think it would be better all-around--wasting fewer people's time--for journals not to have hard word-limits but instead be willing to accept papers of any length short of a book (i.e. 20K words or so). Preemptively precluding authors from submitting longer papers--as many journals currently do--seems to me to only stand in the way of philosophical inquiry, making things more difficult on everyone, particularly authors who write longer, more ambitious papers (as it gives them fewer venues to publish in).
Indeed, as I have mentioned before, I think current publishing norms incentivize a particular kind of philosophical work. It appears, across many fields, that people tend to cluster into two groups: "lumpers" and "splitters." In rough outline, lumpers are systematic, "big picture" thinkers who enjoy and excel at developing complex, large-scale systems. In contrast, splitters are "nuts and bolts" thinkers who excel at smaller, narrower problems. The way I see it, standard journal word-limits (6-8K or even 10K limits) incentivize "splitter" work: articles on relatively narrow problems, featuring relatively narrow arguments, defending narrow theses, and so on. Don't get me wrong: I think splitter work like this is important. I just don't think it's the only type of important work: lump-ish philosophy has an important place too--and lumpish work often takes more words! For instance, there's this 20K paper by Kenneth Taylor (Stanford), this similarly-long paper by Delia Graff, this 19K word paper by Lynne Tirrell, my 19K paper, "A New Theory of Free Will", and so on.
Now, you might say, the fact that these and other long papers are published shows that there is already a place for them in journals. And indeed, there are some journals that publish very long work. The problem though, as I see it, is that most journals--particularly, many highly-ranked journals--do not. Here, for instance, are the word-limits of the top-20 "generalist" philosophy journals according to this poll:
- Phil Review: no word limit.
- Journal of Philosophy: normally no longer than 7.5K
- Nous: 15K word hard limit
- Mind: 8K hard limit (used to be unlimited?)
- PPR: 15K word hard limit
- Australasian Journal: 8K normal, 15K hard limit – standard rises with length
- Phil Studies: 10K max, contact editor for exceptions
- Analysis: 4K hard limit
- Phil Quarterly: rarely accept longer than 10K words.
- Aristotelian Society: invited manuscripts only
- Phil Imprint: no limit
- Phil Perspectives: no limit (2/3 of publications invited)
- American Philosophical Quarterly: 7K hard limit
- Pacific Philosophical Quarterly: normally no more than 10K
- Monist: no limit (must consult with Advisory Editor to submit)
- Canadian Journal of Philosophy: typically no longer than 10K
- Philosophical Topics: invited only
- European Journal of Philosophy: no strict upper limit, but rarely over 12K (18%)
- Ratio: 5-6K, longer rarely accepted
There is surprising number of journals here with no official upper limit (11 of 19, or 58%). Still, of the top-5 journals, only two have no hard limit, and of the top-10 only four do. This means that there are very few prestigious journals for people with long papers to submit to (in addition to 95%+ rejection rates). Not only that: of the few that do, most of them state explicitly that their standards for publishing long-papers are significantly higher than papers of normal length. Given that typical rejection-rates are again 90-95%, this means that authors of long papers only have very few chances to publish a longer paper in a good journal. Things are similar for journals in moral and political philosophy:
- Ethics: 15K hard limit
- Journal of Moral Philosophy: 10K hard limit
- Philosophy and Public Affairs: 12K, may refuse to review longer
- Ethical Theory & Moral Practice: 8K hard limit
- Social Theory and Practice: normally 8-12K, sometimes longer
- Utilitas: 10K hard limit
- Journal of Ethics: no limit
- Journal of Social Philosophy: 10K limit
- Journal of Value Inquiry: 50 pages (15K hard limit)
- Journal of Ethics and Social Philosophy: normally 15K limit, may consider longer
- Journal of Political Philosophy: longer than 10K only exceptionally.
- Res Publica: 8K max
Of these twelve journals, seven have hard word-limits, leaving authors of longer papers only five journals to submit to.
Although I understand longer pieces may require additional time and effort on the part of referees and editors, I want to suggest that this at most supports disincentivizing unnecessarily long papers (for instance, through editorial statements that long papers must meet a very high bar for publication) rather than preemptively disallowing from being submitted, as many journals currently do. Nevertheless, whenever I make this suggestion, I run into many counterarguments. Some of the more common ones (which I hope I haven't straw-personed!) are these:
- The book objection: Longer, systematic philosophy is important, but it belongs in books, not journals.
- The dislike objection: Few people want to read or review very long articles.
- The there-are-already-journals-for-long-papers objection: there are plenty of journals that allow longer papers, so why should they all have to?
- The bad-writers objection: Philosophers are bad writings and longer articles would incentivize bad writing.
- The always-possible-to-shorten objection: Long articles can always be shortened or broken into smaller pieces.
- The cost objection: Long articles place substantially greater costs on reviewers, editors, readers, and journals.
- The journals-have-a-right-to-decide objection: Each journal has a moral and professional right to decide what its word limits are.
The book objection is one of the more common arguments I've come across in favor of word-limits. However, I find it unpersuasive. Consider the following analogy with visual art: "If your painting isn't the size of a portrait, it should be the size of the Sistine Chapel ceiling." I hope we can agree this is absurd. Good paintings come in many shapes and sizes, and art galleries would do us all a grave disservice if they only accepted portraits and massive ceiling murals. If that were the way art galleries worked, we would be deprived of Rembrandt size murals, even larger murals, and so on. However, just like paintings come in many different sizes, so too do philosophical works. The typical journal article is 6-8K words long. However, other articles need to be 18K words or 20K words, etc., in order to accomplish their philosophical aims--which is longer than a normal journal article but far shorter than a book. Thus, insisting that philosophical works either be no more than 10K words (as many journals do) or else be developed in book form (60-100K+ words)--as the book objection implies--really functions primarily to make arbitrarily difficult to publish certain types of philosophical work (ambitious projects that legitimately need to be 15-20K words).
I also often come across the dislike objection. I've many people say they don't write or like to read longer articles. Okay, cool, that's fine! Long articles are not everyone's cup of tea, I get it. Still, they are other people's cup of tea--namely, people who like me who enjoy reading longer, more ambitious papers (and, judging by philpapers download statistics, some long papers have strong download numbers). In any case, if you don't like long articles and you receive an invitation to review one, feel free to refuse the invitation! I am also totally fine with holding longer papers to higher standards, as they require more from reviewers, editors, and readers, not to mention more pages of print. What seems arbitrary to me is not allowing authors to even submit longer papers, as that gives the author no chance to convince referees or editors that the paper is worth their readers' time and their journal's pages.
The there-are-already-journals-for-long-papers objection also leaves me a bit cold. Sure, there are some journals that accept long papers...but, as someone who writes long papers on occasion, the problem again is that there are so few journals who are willing to consider them. Given high (90-95%) rejection-rates and the fact that journals that accept longer submissions tend to hold them to higher standards, an author of a long paper may have very few opportunities to publish it. That puts these authors in a very difficult spot, giving them very few opportunities to find a place to publish their hard work. Given how variable the review process is anyway (see e.g. Jason Stanley's remarks here!), preemptively prohibiting longer submissions seems to me to arbitrarily put authors of long-papers in a difficult spot. Again, I have no problems with higher standards for long papers. It's the preemptive word-limits I'm suggesting journals might want to rethink.
The bad writers objection also puzzles me. Sure, maybe some philosophers are bad writers--and sure, we shouldn't incentivize bad writing. But I see no reason why permitting long papers would dog that. If authors knew that longer papers are held to much higher standards, that would disincentivize unnecessarily long papers while at the same time permitting papers that legitimately need to be long! I don't know about you, but I don't want to go beyond a journal's suggested length if I don't have to, as I don't want my paper to face higher standards unless absolutely necessary. I only send long papers to journals when they need to be long--and what should matter, I think, is not whether there are bad writers, but whether a given submission is written poorly.
The always-possible-to-shorten objection also perplexes me. It is probably usually the case that a longer paper can be broken up into multiple shorter papers (without anything relevant being lost). But this is not always true. It would have been impossible for me to publish "A New Theory of Free Will" as a series of smaller papers without losing things of importance. For the basic philosophical motivation of the paper is that the theory it presents is worth taking seriously because of the vast number of philosophical and philosophical problems it promises to provide a unified explanation of--an argument that legitimately required 19K words to make! If I had attempted to break down the paper into smaller bits, I would have been seriously hamstrung in making a case to readers and reviewers that the theory is worthwhile--for I wouldn't have been able to show in one place all of the problems the theory illuminates. Most papers do not need to be long, but some do--and so, I think, journals shouldn't make it prohibitively difficult to publish the ones that do.
Next, there's the cost objection. Frankly, this seems to me the best argument for word-limits. Reviewing manuscripts takes time--the time of reviewers, and the time of editors--and, all things being equal, longer papers take more time and energy to review. Longer papers require more of readers, more time and effort by copyeditors, and--at least in print journals--more journal space. All of these are very real costs. So far, so good. I think these are all good reasons for holding longer papers to higher editorial standards. Where I balk, though, is with the notion the aforementioned costs are sufficient reasons for journals to preemptively prohibit longer submissions. So long as long papers are disincentivized (by editorial notes that long papers are held to higher standards and may take longer to review), I don't see any clear reason to believe the costs of allowing them would be "too high." After all, some journals already allow long submissions, and they seem to work fine. Further, long papers are the exception, not the norm. Most people I meet say they don't even like writing long papers--it's just the few of us who do who would benefit from raising limits!
Finally, there's the journals-have-the-right-to-decide objection. I grant that journals probably do have the right to decide whether they accept longer papers. I am merely suggesting that they should perhaps reconsider how they exercise this right. There have been many voices in recent years who have suggested that contemporary philosophy has become too focused on small problems, and could perhaps benefit from more ambitious forms of argument. For reasons given above, I am on the side of these voices. I think there are many ways to do good philosophy, and that two of those ways are "splitting" (hammering away on small problems) and "lumping" (systematizing and unifying). I think we should welcome both kinds of philosophizing as a profession, and that raising word limits would be a good way to do so.
But, of course, these are just my thoughts. I may have missed something, and I may well be wrong. In any case, I just wanted to throw it out there for discussion. Long papers may not be everyone's cup of tea--but they are some people's...and all I'm suggesting is that it may good, for everyone involved--not only authors, but also reviewers, editors, readers, and philosophical discourse--for journals in general to at least consider longer submission. For recall, as I explained earlier, in my experience word-limits function all too often to waste everyone's time, requiring authors to submit inferior pieces of work to journals which referees and editors then have to spend time on rejecting or revise-and-resubmit-ing, whereas if the author had been free to submit the longer version in first place a lot of wasted time might have been saved!
Still, these are just my thoughts. What are yours?