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Shorter reports are not better science

IN recent years, a trend has emerged in the behavioral sciences toward shorter and more rapidly published journal articles. These articles are often only a third the length of a standard paper, often describe only a single study and tend to include smaller data sets. Shorter formats are promoted by many journals, and limits on article length are stringent -- in many cases as low as 2,000 words.

This shift is partly a result of the pressure that academics now feel to generate measurable output. According to the cold calculus of "publish or perish," in which success is often gauged by counting citations, three short articles can be preferable to a single longer one.

But some researchers contend that the trend toward short articles is also better for science. Such "bite size" science, they argue, encourages results to be communicated faster, written more concisely and read by editors and researchers more easily, leading to a more lively exchange of ideas.

In a 2010 article, the psychologist Nick Haslam demonstrated empirically that, when adjusted for length, short articles are cited more frequently than other articles -- that is, page for page, they get more bang for the buck. Professor Haslam concluded that short articles seem "more efficient in generating scientific influence" and suggested that journals might consider adopting short-article formats.

Second, we challenge the idea that shorter articles are easier and quicker to read. This is true enough if you consider a single article, but assuming that there is a fixed number of studies carried out, shorter articles simply mean more articles. And an increase in articles can create more work for editors, reviewers and, perhaps most important, anyone looking to fully research or understand a topic.

Third, we worry that shorter, single-study articles can be poor models of science. Replication is a cornerstone of the scientific method, and in longer papers that present multiple experiments confirming the same result, replication is manifestly on display; this is not always so with short articles. (Indeed the shorter format may discourage replication, since once a study is published its finding loses novelty.) Short articles are also more likely to suffer from "citation amnesia": because an author has less space to discuss previous relevant work, he often doesn't do so, which can give the impression that his own finding is more novel than it actually is.

The Perils of 'Bite Size' Science
Published: January 28, 2012
The pressure to publish short-format articles is bad for science.

Marco Bertamini and Marcus R. Munafò are psychologists at the University of Liverpool and the University of Bristol, respectively.


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