Only suckers pay attention to journal length limits

I can't believe I have never blogged this issue.

Obeying the alleged word or character limits for initial submission is for suckers. It puts you at a disadvantage if you shrink down your methods or figure count and the other group isn't doing that.

38 responses so far

  • qaz says:

    Journals (and editors) are inconsistent in how strict they are with these limits. In my experience, extra figures never fly. An extra paragraph often will, and extra references almost always will. An extra page of text, no way. Nevertheless, I'm sure this depends on how chummy you are with the editors. A common technique I've seen is to submit for a longer format but to cut to the smaller when asked.

    Yet another example of the importance of being on the inside and knowing how to play the game.

  • Erook says:

    Le sigh. I never knew this. I always stuck to the guidelines strictly.

  • Rheophile says:

    Highly journal-dependent in my experience. Nothing worse than wasting a week and a half and then getting editorially returned for being around 150 words over on 3500 - which has happened to me.

  • Draino says:

    They probably had other reasons to return it. +150 words is just convenient padding for their decision.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Highly variable, yes. So you might as well push it until you find out you can't. So it takes another few hours to squeeze it down if you hit an administrative hard block. Big deal.

  • Dusanbe says:

    The way to do it is you write 2 sentences for every point you want the idiot reviewers to get through their thick skulls. After thr paper is accepted, then you can cut every other sentence and then some more to get down below the word count.

  • Rheophile says:

    Draino: It was definitely only the word count - they just requested that I cut it down before sending it out to referees.

    DM: I can understand pushing this when you can, but the time cost is not in editing the paper, but the two weeks it takes sitting on the editor's desk - which you have to go through again if it gets sent back. Balancing two weeks of useless submission time with odds of 150 words of extra clarity... well, I won't try it at this journal again.

  • drugmonkey says:

    Yeah eventually you figure out which ones are flexible and which ones aren't. And of *course* it isn't every time that your manuscript has to push the limits. But the point of this discussion is to let people know that not all journals are inflexible.

    Another related point- I'll go ahead and defend the excessive length in reviewing manuscripts if I think it is needed. Especially if there is a Supplementary Materials file with 2-3 figs and they clearly had to do it to meet the length limit.

  • E rook says:

    Care to share which ones are hard and fast and which are more like the pirate code?

  • House of Mind says:

    Psychoneuroendocrinology made me cut down 8 refs before sending out for review...

  • Amboceptor says:

    What the hell? I never even considered challenging these limits, assuming it would lead to being considered a clueless noob who ignores the rules. Apparently it's the opposite. The need to be a savvy insider strikes again.

  • jmz4 says:

    Oh wow. Yeah, I try to keep it close to the word/character limit just cause it focuses the writing, but neither of the labs I've been in care about character count until it's been accepted.

    Of course, for most journals the whole concept of hard character limits is ridiculous.

  • WH says:

    PNAS has a length-checker thingy that spits out a PDF. I've had to edit a manuscript to get it to the correct length to send it out for review. I think all of their print-version articles have to be 6 or fewer pages.

  • Anon Y Mous says:

    Is there a downside to just putting all the extra in supplemental?

  • The Other Dave says:

    Yea, some journals (PNAS, J. Neurosci) length check during submission. Everyone else, yea, I've had to shorten after acceptance. But I've also argued against it. In general I am in favor of the policy. Some people consider 'discussion' to mean "barf every half-assed thought and self-citation possible onto paper'.

  • The Other Dave says:

    And honestly... if you need more than 500-1000 words for your intro, then you should start working on a question that real people might actually care about.

  • The Other Dave says:

    Also consider the reviewers. When I get a bloated 48 page PDF to review, my enthusiasm dives before I even start reading. Never ever ever have I reviewed a paper and thought "gee, I wish they had written more in the discussion". My most common discussion-related comment is that the last 2 pages are unwarranted speculation not supported by any data and should be cut. OR, they could do these experiments.... 😉

  • Philapodia says:

    Language to help save space in your paper:

    "These issues are mentioned both in our own Glamour bunny hopping publication and in more detail in a related blog post. These issues are not discussed in this manuscript, as we expect the readers to be expert peers. Discussing them at length on, e.g., a graduate student level, would substantially increase the length of the manuscript past the page limits for this journal."

  • jojo says:

    Sending some wordy unedited monster MS out doesn't seem to me like a good way to get your results published (or read for that matter). I have never even gotten close to the word limit when submitting a paper. Early drafts, maybe, but thats' what editing is for. Maybe this is some neuro-specific thing?

  • Geo says:

    Not being able to follow simple instructions in order to achieve a useful goal is a behavioral problem.

  • brainsbourbonbeer says:

    none of the labs that I work with care at all about length in an initial submission. Esp for nature* brief communication style formats with very low word counts... I've heard ~1.5x is ok for submission but probably not 2x. Number of figures seems to be solid though.

  • The Other Dave says:

    jojo -- It's not a neuro-specific problem. It's a bad writer-specific problem.

  • qaz says:

    The issue is not editing. The issue is the assumption that all papers fit within a set format. Not fitting within a word-length or citation-length format is not the same as being wordy and unedited. There are interminable and unreadable papers that have been poorly edited that fit perfectly into a 2500 word structure and there are masterpieces of 75 pages of carefully constructed text that are joys to read.

    Some poems are haiku, some are sestinas, and some are free verse. A poem that wants to be a haiku takes tremendous skill to pull off but is often vastly improved by working within the form, but the idea that all poems should be haiku because that's the most efficient is stupid.

    This wouldn't be a problem if where you published was based on the most appropriate format. We could publish short reports of cool findings in Science and Nature and technical details of simple experiments that don't require any real discussion in JNeurosci and full monographs in JNeurophys etc etc... Except that where you publish affects your career prospects and your funding prospects and the likelihood that anyone will cite your work, so people have to try to force their papers into inappropriate formats.

  • drugmonkey says:

    It's not a matter of natural fits. It is a matter of what it take to *end up with* an article published in a particular journal. And when those in the know understand they can push the alleged limits, they are going to be advantaged. On average.

  • The Other Dave says:

    Please people just just explain what the question is (introduction), what the results were (results), and why they matter (discussion). Save your bullshit for some other venue, because I haven't got time to read it. Seriously -- you wonder why people don't read past the abstracts anymore?

    If you can't fit all your blatherings in the length limits, then write more concisely, do more elegant experiments, or use the Supplemental information space for what it was originally intended for -- shit that is important but not essential reading to know what the hell you figured out. And while you're at it, maybe take a look at your stupid space-wasting figures. Comparing two or three numbers does not require a figure!

    Of if you're too lazy to write a paper that will be of interest to the readers of a particular journal, then please quite torturing the editors who have to deal with your spewings and just pick a different journal.

    You can't bitch that journals don't allow enough room and also bitch about the use of supplemental information.

    You can't bitch about impact factors and then use them as an excuse to send papers to inappropriate journals. If you want to publish in journals with higher IF because no one is reading your shit and that's the only way anyone will care about you, then maybe try writing papers that those journals care about, instead of polluting the editorial desk. Did you ever notice how the editors of prominent journals go to meetings a lot and like to talk to people? Did you ever notice how they invite pre-submission inquiries? USE THEM!

    And yes, I am bitter about spending some of my holidays reviewing stupid bloated sloppily-written submissions.

  • jmz4 says:

    "And while you're at it, maybe take a look at your stupid space-wasting figures. Comparing two or three numbers does not require a figure!"
    -Ugh, tell me about it. I read and write papers with a lot of lifespans and survival curves. This type of data can easily be summarized in one graph or table, color coded for convenience, but everyone seems to want to show pairwise (wt vs mutant) six different times just so they have the number of figures required for a "decent journal".

    "Save your bullshit for some other venue, because I haven't got time to read it. "
    What exactly do you consider "bullshit"? Speculation? I know some people who think its the most interesting part of a paper.
    Kind of related topic. Does anyone know if the journals allow you to link to a separately maintained website/blog from the pdf? Like, say for an image gallery or commentary or anything like that?

  • The Other Dave says:

    jmz4: Yea, I think speculation = bullshit.

  • The Other Dave says:

    ...although I admit that bullshit can indeed be interesting. But it's still bullshit.

    Photos of the authors and their favorite recipes might be interesting too. But those don't need to be in the article either.

  • MoBio says:

    @The Other Dave

    "And yes, I am bitter about spending some of my holidays reviewing stupid bloated sloppily-written submissions."

    Maybe you should consider not being a reviewer/editor?

  • JustAGrad says:

    How often is there an incentive to have more pages? My university evaluates publications for P&T based on number of pages, not number of articles. That seems to offer a bit of an incentive to throw in more figures, no?

  • The Other Dave says:

    MoBio: Reviewing and editing is an essential service. We've all got to help, and do as good a job as we can, or the whole system breaks down.



    The Other Dave

  • The Other Dave says:

    JustAGrad: Number of pages? Really? I've never heard of that before. What field are you in?

  • Namnezia says:

    My initial comment (quoted in the post) had more to do with the fact that in many cases the journals staff go through a series of quality checks before they even assign a paper to an editor, and these checks include character lengths of various sections of the paper. Simply put, many journals simply will not even let you get past the submission stage unless the limits are followed. To avoid these unpleasant instances, we just stick to the limits and learn to be concise. There are almost never limits on methods, journals that do this allow you to send a supplementary methods section, so that's not an issue. To try and game the system in my opinion is a waste of time and disrespectful of the reviewers who volunteer their time.

  • drugmonkey says:

    How are overall word counts not a limit on methods? Something has to give.

  • qaz says:

    Most of the journals that I know that have word counts put the methods in supplemental or make them exempt. (Given all the alarums and excursions by the journals about reproducability, it is hard for them to argue for limiting methods sections.) Science, Nature, NNsci all put methods in supplemental. JNsci has word counts for intro and discussion, but not methods or results.

    So I assume Namnezia was complaining about having to force the introduction of its JNeurosci article into a 650 word limit, and your point (which I totally agree with) was that those who know to play the game go ahead and submit articles with 800 word introductions (as we did in our most recently accepted JNeurosci paper).

  • drugmonkey says:

    I don't count "supplemental materials". Unless, I suppose, there is a journal which automatically appends that to every PDF download?

  • jmz4 says:

    ^Nature has actually started doing this fairly recently.
    Cell offers a link (at the bottom, the dummies) for the whole paper plus supplement.

  • A Salty Scientist says:

    GSA journals (Genetics, G3) automatically append the supplement to the PDF. PNAS has a link for PDF+SI. I wish this was standard practice.

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