prosener’s dilemma

A friend recently had a paper provisionally accepted at a journal, but as part of the acceptance she was given an unusual choice:

Either I cut 400 words (perhaps at random), or you cut 600 words.

My friend says she’s already cut the paper considerably as part of her R&R* and that the paper is right now around 12,000 words, so we are talking a 5% cut if she chooses to cut the paper herself and a 3.3% cut if she lets the editor do it. My guess is that the editor assumes she’ll choose to cut the paper herself, and in fact might just be posing the choice facetiously (that the editor would offer this choice is kind of a cute connection to the substantive content of the paper, but I can’t say more about that without risking identifying people).

Benefits of letting the editor make the cut include:

1. If you already feel like a paper has been cut to its intellectual bone, 5% is not a trivial cut and so will take time. Plus, myself, by the time a paper has reached this point I have no interest in reading it over again, so it will be non-enjoyable time.

2. The editor cares about the quality of his journal, and so the threat to cut randomly is obviously empty. If the editor is a good writer, the cut might actually be of better quality than if the author did it, especially since the editor has a more detached perspective on the paper.

3. Even if the editor and author were of equal facility in cutting the paper, those extra 200 words would seemingly give the edge to the editor. (Granted, interests aren’t fully aligned here, and so the editor may be less likely to make the cuts in ways that have less effect on the physical length of the paper–namely the endnotes and references, which presumably are printed smaller than the main text.)

So, she hasn’t asked for Scatterplot’s advice, but what would you do?

* For those less experienced with the ways of the academy, R&R stands for Revise and Resubmit. Some journals take it as a matter of pride that practically nothing gets into their journal without being first rejected but given the opportunity for revised resubmission, which has some clear inefficiencies for the pace of overall knowledge production in a discipline that maybe I’ll go off on in a later post.

Author: jeremy

I am the Ethel and John Lindgren Professor of Sociology and a Faculty Fellow in the Institute for Policy Research at Northwestern University.

11 thoughts on “prosener’s dilemma”

  1. Sometimes I have found that what others think is important or interesting in my work is not what I think is. And what they think is trivial I actually find important. I would make the cuts myself. I’d also try and cut a deal. “Let’s split the difference and I’ll cut 500 words.”

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  2. I don’t have a clear vote, I’d weigh the factors you list. Editor will not cut randomly. If I’m fed up with the paper or too busy with other stuff, I’d let the editor do it. If I have time I’d do it. If I had not already been through the MS on a cutting expedition before, a 600 word cut is pretty easy. If I have not already done it, I can always do a 10% cut on my own or my students’ work without any loss of content. Normal prose contains redundancies and content-less expressions.

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  3. I’d say that unless the author is an exceptionally good writer, any 12,000 word article is almost certainly not pared to the bone. A competent reader should be able to go through it and cut 600 words quite easily. (I mean, this is only 5 percent of the article.) Chances are the author is just wedded to bits that could go, or can’t read the thing carefully at this point because they’ve been looking at it for too long.

    If they want an easy out, I find sociology articles usually have too many references. References + associated in-text citation machinery works out to about 25 words per reference on average. Knock out 20 references and you’ve killed 500 words without changing a single bit of the actual writing. That leaves 100 to go.

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  4. Does anyone take exception to the choice (400 v.s. 600)? It strikes me as an odd–quite exceptional–“choice” since it is driven neither by a need to pare down content (or the length of the cut would be obvious, and the same for both editors) nor a need to fit in column inches. Have others gotten similar “requests?”

    (and just for clarity, i agree the author should cut, and start with references and then foot/endnotes, and then adjectives)

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  5. This is an odd request from an editor at all. I have the pleasure of being an editorial assistant in a larger international studies journal and this would never happen. We peruse the manuscript on submission, and request that cuts be made THEN, completely at the behest of the author(s), before we even send it out for review. Once it is under the initial limit, changes added during any potential R&R process are not considered part of the limit due to their placement buttressing the works argument.

    This “you cut or I cut” thing is quite an unprofessional process and the sarcastic undertones from this editor are very unnecessary.

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  6. Not much experience here and prosenor is not in my dictionary, so it doesn’t exist. Of course there may be mitigating factors, but I would let the editor pare because it saves 200 words, and the work to do it. Maybe primarily I’m walking away from this deal ASAP to write something else and get on with my life.

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  7. sevnetus: You are correct: prosenor is not a word. It is, however, a pun.

    srliebel: I’ve never had the experience of being asked to cut in advance, although of course I have had papers where I knew I needed to observe some particular word count upon submission. In any case, word is that the editor of this journal is a loon who is known for wearing Civil War regalia around the halls of his department and referring to colleagues by names like “Sparky” and “Rooster” in faculty meetings. But if he controls the pages, what’s a person to do?

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  8. If the original submission was already this long and your friend wasn’t told to cut it at that point then it’s not fair to bring this up now. That said, it’s possible the paper got much longer in the R&R process in which case this may be fair.

    I agree, however, that it’s fairly random to say this. Either the journal needs to adhere to some length specification or not.

    Generally speaking though, I agree with Kieran that 12K is likely not as concise as could be. Few academic articles merit that kind of length.

    As to advice: I say she should do the cutting to maintain control. Any chance she can get a friend to take a look and help her cut?

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