ask a scatterbrain: journal submission length

Posted by request of a reader:

Some journals have maximum length guidelines for manuscripts that one submits, perhaps in page count or word length. If a journal’s guide to authors says that the maximum length is, say, a maximum of 9,000 words, what gets included in that word count if the guidelines do not explicitly state? (Footnotes, references, tables, the abstract?) And does “maximum” really mean no words over 8,000? Do standards differ for articles using different methods? Studying less familiar phenomena / places or using less familiar methods?

Author: andrewperrin

University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

13 thoughts on “ask a scatterbrain: journal submission length”

  1. My friend Brian Steensland has the distinction (amongst many others) of being the author of the longest AJS article that is not the longest AJS article published in the issue in which it appears.

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  2. It’s hard to top Kieran’s comment, but if I may boringly return to the question that was asked, I would not obsess over word count in submission. Words get counted after the paper is reviewed and accepted. Most submissions include words and details that are needed to persuade a reviewer that you know what you are doing that you will later be told are unnecessary or wordy. The paper ought not to stand out as manifestly a lot longer than the journal could possibly publish, but that’s all I would worry about. If you are stressing out, you can put a note in the cover letter that says that you recognize that some material may need to go to an on-line supplement but you wanted to be sure the reviewers have all necessary information for their review.

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  3. I have gotten dinged by reviewers for submitting papers that are too long. For most journals I would try to cap the length at 10,000 max, assuming the submission is like most other articles in that it is not ground-breaking and thus not worthy of a really long article.

    But 8,000, 9,000 words seem absurdly low limits to me.

    olderwoman is right that you need to include details that might get cut later on. Absolutely do not cut information about data and methods just for the sake of going below a word count.

    I have found that in the process of trying to get my submissions to be shorter my front ends become tighter and probably better.

    And FWIW my word counts include footnotes and references, and exclude the abstract and tables/figures.

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  4. Recently a friend of mine received a reject and resubmit decision from a journal because the paper exceeded the suggested word count. I’m not sure if this is a normal policy of that journal, but it did send a signal that space issues are becoming a bigger deal to journals, even among the top journals of our field.

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    1. My initial reaction is that your friend either misread the reviews, the reviewers’ comments your friend were substantially more favorable than their comments to the editor, or the editor just didn’t like the paper and was looking for a convenient — albeit lamely bureaucratic and anti-intellectual — excuse to ignore the reviewers’ positive recommendation.

      If I’m wrong, and editors really are rejecting good papers simply because they exceed a word count, then our publication system is even more broken than I thought it was. After all, within ten years the notion of “space constraints” will be little more than a quaint relic of the bygone era of print journals. Even in sociology.

      The more interesting question is how to prevent even more article bloat and quality creep when journal “space” no longer acts as a fixed constraint on either the length of articles or the number of articles that are published. The economic solution would be to charge authors by the word or byte, thereby creating incentives for brevity. But, one can easily see how this would generate charges of elitism in a discipline like sociology, since scholars at resource-rich institutions could afford to be wordier than scholars at resource-poor institutions.

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      1. I assure you that my friend didn’t misread the editors’ comments because the decision was a desk reject. I forgot to mention that part. The editor’s letter was unambiguously written.

        The paper was resubmitted and ended up getting an R&R.

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  5. Given the suggested word count, I doubt that this will be useful in this particular situation, but word count limits — and their rigidity — vary greatly across disciplines. For example, in public health, editors will “bench reject” (i.e., not send out for review) papers that are over the word length and/or the allowable number of tables/figures (yes, they actually quantify the number of tables allowed). Since conventions vary across different disciplines it is important if you are working between two disciplines to know the norms for each.

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  6. Hmmm, so I revise my advice. First carefully peruse the authors instructions from the journal. Second, if ambiguity remains, shoot a question to the editor, as this manifestly varies enormously by journal. I don’t think sociology reviewers count words or pages in submissions. But an egregiously long paper will call attention to itself.

    FYI I had one very frustrating experience with an invited submission for a publication I will not name. One part was being asked to get all the formatting right in the bibliography before review, a mind-numbing task I normally expect to do only after the content has been approved. But the second was two-part. First an insistence on a 40% cut; fair enough, we complied. THEN after another paper was pulled out of the volume, we were asked to re-revise to make our paper longer again. This we refused to do. Enough was enough.

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  7. Only one addition, namely that as a frequent reviewer I get annoyed with papers that are both wordy and too long, taking this (I believe correctly) as a sign of insufficient care invested by the author(s). I never look at the actual word count. Either it gets done what it needs to do without wasting words or it doesn’t. But long papers rarely do.

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  8. I have a question that doesn’t relate to the length of an article but rather the length of time it *should* take to review an article. I’m a grad student and I submitted my first manuscript to a journal on Jan 28. On Feb 8 I got a an email saying it would be sent to the reviewers. On May 23 I still hadn’t gotten a response so I emailed to inquire about its status. I was told there were “problems” with the reviewers and they’d get back to me soon. I still haven’t heard anything. Should I email again? Should I submit somewhere else? Any advice?

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  9. ohnezu: this is a common problem. The editor is doubtless telling the truth: one or more reviewers is probably slow about getting a review back. Or the reviews are back and are mixed (some like the article and others hate it) and the editor or editorial board is debating about what to do.

    You can’t submit the article elsewhere unless you withdraw it from the journal that is slow. You can ask the editor again, and you can (if you wish) tell the editor that you want to withdraw the article and submit elsewhere if you have not heard back from them by [date], but most people don’t do that. Following up sometimes does produce an answer, but the follow up should be polite unless you are prepared to give up on any possibility of ever publishing in that journal.

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    1. Thanks for the advice! I definitely don’t want to burn any bridges, and the journal is a great fit for my article. I’ll probably send a polite e-mail this week to inquire about the status. I’ve been waiting 4 months I guess another few weeks won’t kill me!

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