Context and Short Papers

Background and context often take a back seat in scientific writing. Matthew Blindt explains why they shouldn’t and suggests a way to add them to papers without increasing strain on journals.


More scientific papers are being written than ever before. Science blogger Duncan Hull of the University of Manchester calculated that roughly 1.29 papers are published per minute – so it should come as no surprise that high impact journals simply don’t have enough pages to keep up. This lack of space encourages editors to only publish shorter papers and articles so that they can include more of them per issue.

Because of the pressure on academics to have a high rate of publication in reputable journals like Nature or Science, they tend to write papers whose lengths are chosen to maximise their chance of being published – not to maximise the amount of relevant information they contain. To pamper to editors, scientists have to cut sections from their papers, and context is an obvious choice.

By context I do not only mean prerequisites to understanding the topic being discussed, but also recent results from relevant studies, the setting in which the phenomenon occurs, and the areas in which findings could be applied. Context is a vital part of scientific writing that can help readers make sense of complicated findings, but it is all too frequently absent in modern scientific literature.

It is harder to write concisely than to be verbose, and it makes sense that writers are asked to put in a little additional effort to make their information succinct. However, imposing word limits will mean that on occasions, scientists are forced to sacrifice some content (and worse – clarity) in order to be published. For instance, Nature states that articles should contain around 3000 words. But what can be explained adequately in 3000 words can often be explained well in 5000. Why should we settle for adequate? We can do better.

What if journals continued to print the same length of paper, but offered writers the opportunity to submit a supplementary article to be made available exclusively on the journal’s website? This would allow writers who are particularly keen on conveying their research to a wider audience to include background, context and even discussion about what results mean and the hidden complexities in the method. In addition to putting the context back into scientific writing, this would increase the transparency and the accessibility of the research.

I’m going to refer to the two parts of the paper as the (published) core paper and the (online) supplementary information. The core paper would be no different to those which are currently published by journals and is the first point of contact for readers. By keeping the same short format in print, articles may maintain their impact and punch to initially captivate the audience. The supplementary information is for people who wish to better understand the topic or find more details and background.

For this idea to work, it is important that the core paper and the supplementary information are both hosted by the same journal. It will already have the readership, the editors and the online infrastructure to easily and expertly publish both parts – and vitally, it will have the ability and incentive to advertise the supplementary piece to readers of the core paper. This is because journals will now be able to receive traffic from readers who previously would have had to look elsewhere for extra information to help them to understand a paper. This will benefit the journals, as more traffic on their websites will generate more revenue for them.

You may be wondering why writers don’t ignore print journals altogether and instead submit long papers online. The problem with doing this is that online journals care as much about impact as paper journals do. Readers are put off by longer papers, and if people don’t read them, then online journals won’t publish them – it’s that simple. The short paper format is still crucial to draw in readers in the first place.

Many writers will not feel like they need to use additional online space to fully make their points – some topics can be covered well within a word limit. However, by giving writers this choice we avoid punishing scientists who study more complex phenomena. At present, scientists who have performed more involved research or obtained richer results will in general appear to convey their information less clearly, as they have the same amount of page space to convey a greater amount of information. This no longer needs to be the case. Now they are able to clarify and offer more detailed explanations to interested readers online without having to direct them away from the jurisdiction of the journal in which their core paper is published.

Both parts of a paper will still almost always be written by scientists, for scientists. One big difference, however, is that where presently a cosmology paper would rarely be understood by a scientist outside of the field, now the supplementary information might help the reader to understand it without having to perform a large amount of external research – and hence previously unlikely collaborations are made possible.

An obvious drawback to this idea is the increased write-up and editing times (and of course since both scientists and editors are on a salary, this will increase the write-up and editing costs). This is a valid criticism. However, I believe that this is a small price that many writers and journals will be willing to pay in order to better inform their readership. Journals may even see a long term increase in traffic revenue that offsets the editing cost. Either way, for a fairly insubstantial cost, we get the best of both worlds – we get more information in our journals and we avoid making them any fuller than they already are.

At a conference celebrating the 350th anniversary of the world’s oldest journal (Philosophical Transactions), Stuart Taylor, Publishing Director at the Royal Society, argued that “we are limiting ourselves in the present model by thinking of science journals as products purchased by a consumer.” Cameron Neylon, Advocacy Director at the Public Library of Science, added, “Scientific communication is a means of dissemination, it is not a product.” Perhaps after 350 years of scientific journals of the same format it is time for a change. If we do as Neylon suggests and view papers solely as a mechanism for distributing scientific information, then investing in passing on more information to the reader is clearly worth it. A system that permits scientists to include context and tell the whole story rather than forcing them to adhere to an arbitrary and restrictive word limit is long overdue.

Matthew Blindt is a fourth year student studying mathematical physics at the University of Nottingham. Comic by Mari-Anne Copeland.
Context and Short Papers

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