By Alexandre Morin-Chassé
A few months ago, I published an exceptionally short paper presenting experimental evidence on a particular issue of survey methodology. This experience has taught me valuable lessons about conveying the necessary information under extreme restrictions on the word count.
A “Very” Short Report
In its original version, my paper was 2,300 words long and it was formatted in accordance with the convention of the field: an introduction highlighting the relevance of the research question and the gaps in the existing literature, an empirical section describing the methods and presenting the results, and a conclusion discussing implications, limitations, and offering directions for future research. Since the study relied on experimental methods and was already short, I decided to submit this contribution to the Journal of Experimental Political Science (JEPS).
One week following submission, the editor-in-chief of JEPS, Kevin Arceneaux, sent me the advice of his associate editor: “In it’s current form, I would desk reject the paper, but I believe that you can revise the paper into a useful short report that might be of interest to survey researchers and experimentalists. Short reports are 500 words long.” It took me a couple of seconds before I realized this was not a joke. It was the first time I heard about such a short paper format. It is true that the journal Nature publishes 1500 words Letters. But in my experience, 500 words resembles more to the kind of abstracts academics write when submitting a paper proposal for a conference. In the meantime, the associate editor apparently had a positive view of my work. While my paper was officially desk rejected, this decision also came with an invitation to resubmit, but this time using a different manuscript format.
After my initial surprise, I set out to find out more about the short reports published by JEPS. According to the journal’s website, short reports “concisely summarize empirical findings that primarily inform best practices, measurement strategies, or innovations in experimental design.” I could not argue with the associate editor’s assessment: my contribution fitted this description quite accurately. Maybe, they had a point. Maybe, my paper could work as a short report. I decided to give it a try, after all, writing 500 words should not be so complicated. Cut here and shorten there: et voilà!
Of course, I was wrong. The task was much more complicated than what I anticipated. When space becomes a scarce resource, various needs start competing with one another. In my original submission, it took me 500 words just to introduce the topic and to highlight the gaps in the literature. It soon became clear that it would be impossible to offer a fair review of previous works given the little space that was available. Also, my empirical section was initially divided in two parts, Study 1 and Study 2. I felt like I would have to cut one study or the other to respect word limits. If so, my paper would then offer weaker empirical evidence to support my argument. Finally, it was not quite clear to me how a conclusion should be structured given such constraints.
Elements of Solution
Yet, also to my surprise, this exercise turned out to be a very stimulating intellectual challenge. It took a couple of steps to solve this puzzle. The first, but not the least, was to adopt a more modest view about my contribution. I had to return to the roots, to reconsider what were the real take-home findings of my work. Then I had to think of a frame, an angle, that would bring readers through the same steps as one does following the convention, but at a much faster pace. It took a couple of attempts, but I finally found a structure I felt comfortable with. Here are some tips to communicate your work using less space.
I realized that one effective way to concisely make your point about the relevance a research problem is to present a simple but persuasive example of a situation where having an answer would help inform best practices. Also, if a concept that is central to your argument includes several words (e.g. “Face-saving response items”), you may want to use an abbreviation to refer to it later in the text (e.g. “FSRI”). For the empirical section, keep in mind that, for many journals, tables are not included in the word count. While tables can report detailed results, the accompanying text needs only to comment on the main finding that emerges from the analysis. If your paper includes two studies, introduce your second study by positioning it in relation to the first one. Make the connection obvious enough for it to fit in two or three sentences. And don’t forget that elements that are not essential to your argument can be moved in online appendix. Finally, when discussing the limitations of your work in conclusion, focus on the most important limitation, the one that future research should try to address.
Both the Editors of JEPS and the review process were helpful in dealing with these unconventional constrains. In the end, not a single sentence from the original version still appears in the published short report (Morin-Chassé, In Press). But, I am convinced that my publication manages to convey the same message, in a more accessible format, one that will take at maximum of five minutes of readers’ precious time. Are 500 words too short? For many types of publication, without question, it definitely is too short. But sometimes, 500 words can be enough, especially for some specific methodological innovation, refinement or validation, if we are up to the challenge of clearly and concisely communicating what really matters.
Having to dramatically cut my paper’s word count for the publication of a JEPS short report has taught me much about how much space I really need to develop an argument and how to present information as effectively and efficiently as possible. With ever-increasing academic outputs and exigencies of academic life, we should all consider when the shorter the publication might just be the better.
*Note that JEPS has recently changed its policy: short reports are now twice as long, with a 1000 words limit. Good luck!
Alexandre Morin-Chassé work as a research analyst at the Université de Montréal. He studies research methods, political behavior, and public understanding of science.
The original version of this blog post was published on OxPol, the Oxford University Politics blog.
Morin-Chassé, A. In Press. How to Survey About Electoral Turnout? Additional Evidence. Journal of Experimental Political Science, 1-4. doi:10.1017/XPS.2018.1