Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Page Limits on Journal Papers

I know of at least two journals that I publish in that have page limits on the length of papers. I am completely puzzled by this. A journal paper should be as long as it needs to be to derive and explain the results the author intends to convey, since the paper should be the final record on that piece of research. Some papers might need 20 pages; others might be too long even at 10. A hard rule of say 12 pages maximum just doesn't make sense.

I can imagine two reasons for instituting page limits on journal papers: paper costs, and reviewer time. Neither seems particularly compelling to me. Are there other reasons I'm missing? (Notice that both of these are more compelling in the case of conferences, where I would agree page limits make more sense. And even in that setting, papers costs is rapidly disappearing as a reason, and at some point, the question of page limits should probably be reconsidered.)

I do admit that there are many papers where the author should be forced to edit things down further, and most authors have a tendency to write too much rather than too little. But it seems the right answer to this is to have good reviewers and a good editor firmly tell an author that the paper is not yet ready and needs further editing. A page limit doesn't adequately solve this problem and raises new, more unpleasant ones.

Anyone want to defend this practice? Or at least suggest reasons for it I haven't thought of?

16 comments:

Paul Beame said...

Journal editors typically have a budget of X pages per year or even per issue. In order to keep subscribers happy, the journal might also want to ensure that this is made up of some minimum number of papers. One can debate whether this remains reasonable. In the past, for the good actors in the business, more pages might make a journal too expensive to produce. These days they can make up the costs via their profitable digital archives.

I can see that if there isn't enough content for the pages one could require that a paper be pared down, or if a paper is too long to be digestible in one chunk one could require that it be split into two parts and accept them both. A fixed limit seems less reasonable. My one experience with a limit was for a paper that seemed quite digestible as a whole. We were forced to split it into two papers in separate journals that ended up being published a couple of years apart because of different publication backlogs. The funny thing is that the journal to which we originally sent the paper wanted to publish what we thought was the less interesting half.

Jonathan Katz said...

In my experience as a reviewer, it's very difficult to get authors to cut anything from their paper. A hard page limit at least forces that to happen. (Although 12 pages does seem ridiculously short!)

moshe said...

A limit 12 pages does seem amazingly tight. On the other hand, do you really mean no limit? How'd an editor handle a 500-page submission? In practice, a submission of over 50 pages, is going to be difficult to get refereed and is unlikely to be read. That being said, one should always allow for exceptions in well justified cases. Moshe Vardi

asarwate said...

The IEEE Transactions on Signal Processing has a page limit for cost and digestibility issues, I think. But you can always pay more per page over the limit (it's something like $100/page).

It seems the name of the game is to incentivize succinct statements of results. Nobody wants to be the jerk of an editor who ruthlessly pares down a manuscript, so things tend to slide. The real question is then this : how can we encourage authors to emphasize readability?

Daniel Lemire said...

In the entire history of computer science, how many significant results do not fit in 100 pages? Probably none.

Dave Bacon said...

12 pages tight? Physical Review Letters, one of the top physics journals has a 4 page limit!

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

I have to say, I like Anand's take on the problem. This is a mechanism design problem, and the goal is to find the right incentives that will encourage authors to find the right tradeoff between their time/effort and the goodness of the paper. It's much easier to write a wordy, not-well-edited paper, and while it sacrifices readability, many authors don't find it worth the (often substantial) effort to write better by writing less. I don't think charging $100/page is a sufficient or well-designed incentive.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Dave --

Does PRL offer any justification of this policy? That's what I'm curious about. If they have an argument that something longer than 4 pages is no longer a "letter" and therefore should be published in an appropriate alternative forum, perhaps this is reasonable. (I would assume there are journals of equivalent quality designed for longer work -- but perhaps not.)

Anonymous said...

I'm told that Soviet journals frequently had strict page limits because of actual resource limitations. However, this is only of historical relevance.

Mathematics and related areas (such as theoretical CS) are genuinely different from experimental sciences in a major respect. In mathematics, one of the major points of journal articles is to preserve the full details for the historical record. In experimental sciences, this makes no sense. Many results are at least partially wrong, the "full details" would be tremendously complicated (you typically can't publish an entire data set), and historical perspective really changes things. Journals are in no sense intended to document things for history, but rather to provide the most important details of current research. In such a context, page limits make a lot more sense. My feeling is that some theoretical journals imitate experimental journals, and page limits have become one of the things that scholarly journals do, even when they make no sense.

PRL is somewhere in between archiving and news. They consider themselves to publish hot breaking news, and encourage authors to submit a longer paper with full details to another, slower journal after PRL publishes the highlights.

Anonymous said...

In the entire history of Physics, how many papers of Einstein on relativity theory fit in 4 pages? Probably none.

Anonymous said...

just for the record, Michael, are these IEEE journals? I think there are IEEE journals that have a small font, two-column format, very similar to the usual proceedings format. My guess is that they see journals as news articles, or announcement, which is more appropriate for experimental work.

Having said that, there are math papers with 100-200 pages or more, including very good ones. I can never understand how anyone could review it, unless it was a highlight like fermat's last theorem.

Anonymous said...

As for PRL - same is the case with IPL, PPL etc. (I believe IPL=Information Processing Letters has limit of 8 pages). These are journals aiming at short papers/notes. And what's wrong with it?

Anonymous said...

IEEE Signal Processing Letters (SPL) has also strict 4 page limit. I just got bitten by this limit as my revised paper went to fifth page.vogav

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

Anonymous 12 brings up a point that I should have mentioned. Suppose:

1) To reach the arbitrary page limit of x pages, you cut things out, for example leave out the proof of a theorem.
2) A reviewer says your paper is wonderful and should be accepted, but only if the proof of the theorem is actually given, because it's an important part of the paper. The reviewer suggests that nothing else need be cut.
3) You can't get the proof in within getting x+1 pages.

What should the editor/journal do? Reject the paper? This is not hypothetical. I've recently had almost exactly that situation come up. To me, it highlights one of the problems with having page limits for many journals.

Michael Mitzenmacher said...

To anonymous above: I have no problem with a broad-topic journal (like PRL or IPL) that declares its goal is to be a forum for announcements or short results that aren't served well elsewhere, and therefore institutes a page-limit. In this case, if one has a longer result, it usually belongs in a more specialized journal, and there would almost always be one or more journals of the same or higher quality standard that could take the longer paper.

I do have problems with journals that are supposed to be the (or even a) primary journal in an area instituting page limits. I don't see the reason, and there may be no suitable alternative home for a longer paper. For example, IEEE/ACM Transactions on Networking is arguably the premier journal on networking. It has a 14 page limit. Now, admittedly, 14 pages in IEEE fonts is a healthy amount of room. But why the strict guideline? If I have a major result in networking I want it to go there, and it might conceivably need more than 14 pages. (Especially a networking paper, since I'll have to put in a lot of space-consuming graphs to provide evidence.)

Anonymous said...

Having said that, there are math papers with 100-200 pages or more, including very good ones. I can never understand how anyone could review it, unless it was a highlight like fermat's last theorem.

Unlike for CS conferences, there are no reviewing time limits. I reviewed a 120-page paper once, and it was pretty doable: I spent a few hours on it each week and the process took most of a year. Doing it all at once might have saved some time (each week you waste some time figuring out where you left off and getting back into it), but it's just not feasible to block off that much time.

Fortunately, huger papers are pretty rare, and they tend to be written only about important results (which are worth reading about anyway).