the twenty page limit

In the comments to this post, somebody writes the following about the American Sociological Associations 20-page limit for conference papers:

Why have a page limit at all? … That would spare us the annual routine of stretching margins, squishing tables to the point of illegibility, and cutting huge chunks out of the reference section (a new trick I learned this year) in order to squeeze under this arbitrary limbo pole.

Sociology confession: I ignore this rule.* I ignore it when I submit, and I’ve ignored it when I organize sessions. I tell other people to ignore this rule. I think you, too, should ignore this rule. I think you should especially ignore this rule if you’re organizing ASA sessions.

Question: do some people organizing sessions hold people accountable to this rule? Has anybody had a paper rejected from ASA on the grounds that it was longer than 20 pages? Has anybody organized a session and rejected papers that were longer than 20 pages?

(For anyone answering “yes” to the latter: why? Are you reliving your glory days as a hall monitor back in junior high? I guess somebody could say “It isn’t fair to people who did the work of getting their papers down to 20 pages,” but, well, enforcing “fairness” with respect to a dumb time-wasting rule just contributes to perpetuating the dumb time-wasting rule.)

* As it happens, I think my submission this year is less than 20 pages, but that’s because that was the actual length of the paper at the time of submission.

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.

27 thoughts on “the twenty page limit”

  1. I have long hated the limit and, as a session organizer this year, have absolutely no interest in it whatsoever. Really, I suspect that most organizers would prefer a 25 page paper that’s interesting to a 20 page paper that’s boring. In other words: make it longer if it adds to the paper, but not so that you can fit in that redundant, badly-written section that always ends up in some draft of a paper.

    All that said, I think one year the online system was configured to reject submissions that were over 20 pages. Does anyone else remember this?


  2. I think it is a stupid rule and ignore it as much as possible both as an organizer and as a submitter. I have heard that the system may chop the ends off papers and urged people to test the system before submitting, but to ignore the rule as much as possible and focus on writing a good paper. One year when I think the submission system was enforcing the rule, I reformatted my paper to 20 single space pages and put all the tables in a separate file (using the “additional materials”) option.


  3. I don’t think there’s anything magical about 20 pages, but on the other hand I’ve had people submit 75-page tomes. These are obviously not suitable for presentation at a conference, and they take up a lot of organizer time to read and consider. If we could count on our colleagues to be reasonable we might not need the page limit.


    1. Would you have felt better about it if the author of the 75-page paper still submitted the same paper, but also included a note explaining what part of it he was intending to present?

      Obviously, nobody wants to have to read a 75 page paper to decide if it should get 15 minutes at ASA. (Although, in all seriousness, would you actually read all 75 pages either way?) The thing that seems the most galling inefficiency to me is when people have written a full-length paper with the proper goal (i.e., journal/book publication) and then feel like they have to take a detour to come up with a special 20-page version just for the session organizer.


      1. Hmmm – I guess I see the most galling inefficiency as when the organizer has to read too much material because the author can’t be bothered to recognize the distinction between a conference paper and a journal paper.

        Building on this and on OW’s point below (@7), I wonder about implementing a common practice in medical conferences: submitting detailed and careful abstracts ahead of time for the eventual production of oral presentations or posters; these are then (usually) followed up later by the production of a paper for a journal.


      2. Hmm. Yeah, I don’t myself believe in encouraging the notion of a conference paper as a separate entity. I certainly would not encourage graduate students to think in these terms.


  4. I’ve had people submit 75-page tomes. These are obviously not suitable for presentation at a conference, and they take up a lot of organizer time to read and consider.

    But if someone submits something that’s obviously not suitable to present in 15 minutes, you don’t have to waste your time carefully reading and considering it, no?


    1. What if it is suitable to present? Personally, for ASA session organizing purposes, I wouldn’t carefully read all 75 pages to make that judgment anyway. I would probably read about 15 pages and skim 60.

      (This isn’t me arguing with AP so much as wondering if I’m normal or a slacker in this regard.)


  5. What’s so wrong about the ASA rule is that it is based on the (correct) assumption that 20 pages is the maximum you can “read” in 20 minutes. But we don’t want people to “read” their papers, we want them to present their research (or theory). A good presentation is a different format from a good paper, and it is quite possible to do a good 15-20 minute presentation on a longer paper, while a 15-20 page paper often lacks material that should be present in a good paper.


  6. What happened to common sense? It’s not a journal/book submission. You don’t need to prove every single little thing. It’s a 15 minute presentation. What’s so unreasonable about presenting a brief summary of your work so an organizer can judge it? Is your ego so out of control that you can’t be bothered?

    Panel organizers are not making a final judgment on quality of research. You don’t need extensive lit review/tables/alternative specifications. Just your main point. I stand by the 20 page limit.


    1. This is maybe the part that I am having trouble getting. Do people really encourage graduate students to write papers specifically for the ASA? Is that good advice?

      I think of conference papers as something that graduate students should do along the way to a published paper. The idea that they should write up a special 20 page summary for one person to read doesn’t make much sense to me.


      1. Don’t think I expressed myself clearly. I don’t write papers just for ASA. I usually just take an already existing working paper and trim it down: just the main results, no lit review, data description minimized, etc. That’s a summary, but it’s more of an extract from existing work. It’s not written just for the conference.


  7. Having 80 papers to read, of course you (I) don’t read them all closely all the way through. So, if you send a 75-page tome, you’re hoping the organizer will get lucky and skim the right parts. I recommend putting a couple hours into a making it shorter and to the point – the organizer is more likely to see the value of it if you have properly selected the excerpts for her or him to read. If it is already longer, maybe include a link to the full paper and put it online somewhere. Editing down is an important skill.

    For example, I could have written: Organizers often don’t have time to read the whole paper. For best results, get to the point in a shortened version and provide links to additional material.


    1. Yeah, I’m not sure how much actual vs. apparent disagreement there is in this thread. The idea of somebody spending 2-3 hours customizing whatever paper / book chapter / dissertation chapter for the purposes of an ASA submission, to me that seems a reasonable use of time. 2-3 days, not reasonable.

      Although I would probably not bother with the 2-3 hours and instead just take my chances with anything under 35 pages. Obviously 75 pages is different.


  8. Although I see Fabio’s point that it is important to be able to provide a “brief summary” of your work, I agree with Jeremy that the 20-page limit is not the best way to do it: 20 pages is not brief, so it ends up being longer than a summary but too short to be a full paper.

    The other problem that I see with this is that it requires nearly completed manuscripts eight months before they are presented. Especially for graduate students, that is a long time to wait (if we assume the no-submission-elsewhere rule holds) to submit a paper that might be close to finished.

    I really like the way PAA handles submissions. They require an abstract and then either an extended abstract or a paper. That can provide the brief summary that Fabio suggests without requiring inefficient work highlighted by Jeremy.


    1. It is not a “no submission elsewhere” rule, it is a “not published” rule. MANY people mail the article to a journal on the same day they upload to the ASA submission site. MANY articles are in press by the time they are presented at ASA.

      There is also a “not presented elsewhere” rule which refers to other conferences and is also regularly ignored. I think this is a really stupid rule, too. And it is utterly unenforceable.

      It seems like the only people who follow the rules are the grad students just starting out.


  9. I agree with Mike’s point above that the larger issue may be the fact that ASA requires a full paper in January. If somebody already has a paper that they are planning to submit to a journal in the intervening months and can cut down for ASA that is one thing, but graduate students who are attempting to use ASA as a feedback mechanism on the path to publication may end up submitting something very different than they present anyway.


    1. I also agree with you and Mike: the theory of a conference is work in progress, which is counter to having a paper 8 months in advance. But conferences that accept abstracts do have higher rates of no shows. The “extended abstract” helps this problem. I have not been to PAA enough to know whether no shows are a serious problem there. They are at a lot of regional conferences.


  10. I completely agree with Mike3550’s comment. (In fact, it is very similar to a comment that I posted a few days ago in response to the conference location thread.) Submitting a full paper 8 months in advance does no favors to younger scholars hoping for actual feedback. The one time that I had a paper accepted to ASA (to a roundtable), the paper was in press by the time the conference came around. Not helpful. But maybe I’m mistaken in thinking that one function of ASA should be to give scholars feedback on their work?

    I think adopting PAA rules would make sense. These include allowing extended abstracts and barring submissions in the following year from people who are no shows.

    On principle, I don’t like rules that are routinely ignored (unenforced 20-page limit, no presenting the work elsewhere, etc.).


  11. I’m with Jeremy here. If you aren’t writing for legitimate publication, then the meetings are a waste of time. Real papers should be 35-50 pages double spaced, and maybe a tad more depending on the topic.

    But, mostly, this is a red herring. The ASA system can barely get the papers to the organizers. I have not seen any evidence (with several stints as an organizer) that they chop off content or in any way restrict what goes from the submission to the organizers.

    So, submit your REAL paper. Not some goofball reduced form version. Of course, this is all a few months too late…


  12. * If I were czar, I’d reduce the page limit to 15.
    * Oral presentations should be swift and to the point.They should not be rapidly-read or condensed versions of a for-publication paper.
    * If there is more material necessary to make the point, it can be in the form of an online supplement available to the organizer and, later, the audience.
    * Truth to be told, most ASA papers suffer, like most sociology papers, from incredible bloating.


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