Time to simplify

As I was discussing with my collaborator the wisdom of following the request of one of the referees to include an additional figure in our manuscript, I expressed my doubts on whether, upon heeding that suggestion, we would be able to stay under the infamous four pages, required of all manuscripts to appear in Physical Review Letters. I was stunned upon hearing his response: “There is really no four page limit…”

I do not know when this happened [0], but it is true. The notorious “hard” limit of four journal pages is gone. Most of the articles published on the current issue of the journal are 5 pages long.
I decided to investigate this, and actually I am not sure what to make of the information offered at the official web page of the journal. There is a considerable degree of ambiguity, I think.
On the one hand, it still clearly states
The total length of a Letter should not exceed 4 journal pages

(I suppose it is a matter of what nuance one ought ascribe to the word “should”).
On the other hand, at the page titled Guidelines for Calculating Length – Letters and Short Papers, nothing is said about maximum number of pages. Rather, maximum length is expressed in terms of number of words (3,500).
One might think that, whether that be four pages or 3,500 words, it is not really much of a change, in the end — how many pages can one possibly fill with 3,500 words ? Well, on going through the new guidelines carefully, one quickly realizes that, while it is still not possible to publish in the flagship journal of the American Physical Society articles of arbitrary length, the previous, nightmarish and unnegotiable restriction of a maximum of four manuscript pages has been de facto quietly relegated to the mists of history.
For, items such as title, abstract and references are excluded from the word count. As anyone knows, who has struggled to fit something in four pages while citing everyone who may review the article deserves a mention, not having to worry about fitting everything in four pages including references makes a significant difference.

One is inevitably left wondering, though: why there is still a length limit ? Presumably because, at the end of the day, the journal still must be printed as a hard copy. I come back to this below.
A more general question is: What is the purpose of a “letter” style article, this day and age ?
Could it be simply the vestige of a time past ?
The entire journal structure and organization needs to be reconsidered in light of the electronic format. In an era of instantaneous communication, why is there still a need for a letters journal with its draconian page limits and atavistic claims of rapid publication ? As is well known to potential physicist readers, artificial constraints result in articles too telegraphic to be useful either to experts or to non-experts.
That kind of makes sense, does it not ? Well, these thoughts were first expressed (to my knowledge) in 1997 by physicist Paul Ginsparg, the man who brought to the physics community (or arguably to the science community as a whole) the well-known ArXiv electronic repository. If it was clear fourteen years ago that the current “journal structure and organization” was no longer serving the best interest of the discipline, why is it that we are still stuck with it ?

  • Why have all physics or science journal not abandoned the hard copy format and made the transition to “online only” ?
  • Why is there still a length limit, or any length restriction at all, in some journals ?
  • Why is Physical Review (i.e., excluding the Letters section) still divided into, what, 7 different sections ?
  • What is the purpose of Physical Review Letters ?
  • In other words: Why are not all physics (or, science) journals like this one ?

    I am thinking that the transition to the online-only format is around the corner. In fact, the answer to the first question is probably “Because people are afraid to take the plunge”, and to most (if not all) of the others “Because the paper format requires that”.
    I would not be surprised if Physical Review A-B-C-D-E-ST were soon consolidated into a single online journal, with no length restriction, probably open access, accepting contributions from all areas of physics (including “interdisciplinary” articles), where authors will be able to upload media and other electronic material that paper format does not support…
    Oh… wait…. is that what this journal is for ?
    You mean, as soon as APS discontinues publication of all its sections, that ridiculous “X” will be dropped, the journal will be renamed “Physical Review” as it should be (ah, the good old days…), and that will be the only APS journal left (other than Physical Review Letters) ?
    If that were the case, even though they would have chosen a bit tortuous a path to get there, I would agree with the general idea. Until then, however, articles submitted to Physical Review X will continue to be temporarily filed under The X-Files [1]. Kidding aside, I tend to regard these long overdue simplification and consolidation as a good thing, not only for physics publishing, but for the discipline as a whole.
    The Editors of the New Journal of Physics deserve a lot credit for showing to the rest of the community that it is possible, and how it is done.

    Things are different when it comes to Physical Review Letters, though.
    It may no longer serve the purpose for which it was originally designed, but I do not see it going away any time soon. We may take this as a the toll to be paid to tradition. Physical Review Letters is not only the most influential journal published by the American Physical Society, the one with the highest impact factor, the one to which physics department tenure and promotion committees look, when evaluating their junior faculty — it is an iconic journal, a piece of history. It remains the most prestigious venue for dissemination of important and novel results (sorry, do not talk to me about Science or Nature, not even Nature Physics), the one where we send our best work [2].
    Whether they warrant the appellative “letter” or not [3]) articles published in PRL constitute the crown jewel of a physicist’s portfolio. Eliminating the restriction on length, making it possible for authors to upload electronic content, while still requiring “exceptional importance and broad interest across the discipline”, will make this a much better journal.
    The most important improvement is that from now on there will be no excuse for authors to sweep under the rug not to publish crucial aspects of their calculations and/or experiments, on the ground that “size restrictions” did not permit it. This has been by far the biggest grievance with Physical Review Letters that many of us have had, since we got in this business.

    Notes

    [0] Actually, I am not even sure I want to find out when it did happen, or I may end up kicking myself for recently spending quality time trying to eliminate adverbs, reducing figure fonts, creative using footnotes…

    [1] Yes, I have decided to collect PRX jokes. This is my first contribution.

    [2] Of course, every article submitted for publication should be deemed worthy of publication by its authors, but every honest scientist knows that there are articles and there are articles, there are incremental or technical contributions, that are of interest mostly to others who are engaged in research in the same narrow area, and there are other papers that contain milestone results, of potential broad importance even outside that subfield. I think this is a meaningful distinction, one will survive the electronic publishing age.

    [3] They are not really “letters” anyway, are they ?
    Dear Editor, how have you been ? It has been a long time since we last corresponded. I know, our last exchange was not the most amicable, but I am hoping that time has healed the wound, and that you and I are now ready to move past our disagreements and turn over a new leaf. I thought I would took the first step toward mending fences, and as a gesture of good will, I am describing to you my last studies of frustrated antiferromagnets…

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    7 Responses to “Time to simplify”

    1. GMP Says:

      Letters is not only the most influential journal published by the American Physical Society, the one with the highest impact factor,

      \pedant mode on

      Technically, Reviews of Modern Physics has a higher impact factor (51.7, the 5-Yr one 48.6)

      \pedant mode off

      Sorry, couldn’t resist. 🙂 But I agree, PRL is the place to publish novel results. And I hail the relaxation of the page number restrictions. [Now only if APL(3-page limit) would also follow suit…]

      Btw, I love the letter format. The size actually makes them more widely read as their sheer size is not an obstacle (I am the first to admit that 20-page PRB articles scare me, even though I am guilty of having written a few in my career).

      • Massimo Says:

        Technically, Reviews of Modern Physics has a higher impact factor (51.7, the 5-Yr one 48.6)

        Yeah I know, I just never remember to include RMP when I talk about the APS journals because most of its articles are invited… seems like a different animal, really.

    2. New Grad Says:

      Some comments from one that is down in the trenches, working with his hands*:

      1)Right now, my lit searches seem to result in about 80% PRB and APL articles. When I find a PRL article, I seem to search out the more recent articles that have cited the PRL article. PRB seems to win out on the Personal Impact Factor.

      I think PR should remain sectioned. I dread the day I must write or read a PR article meant for the whole PR(A-X) gamut. It would be long *and* general.

      You may have missed the realities of the need for PRX. If the APS has seen the light on the online or open-access future, how else could they realistically start the transition? A sudden conversion would be a big gamble and hence a bad business decision, as there would certainly be resistance to a sudden conversion.

      2) We have a condensed matter journal club that seems to unintentionally turn into ‘and now what is wrong with this Nature Physics article?”

      *this was a poke at non-experimentalists/professors (I have forgotten your rule. Can I call you a theorist or not?).

      • Massimo Says:

        I think PR should remain sectioned.

        Sure, like PRL is. But there is no PRLA, PRLB etc., articles are just classified by the area or subfield in which they fall. That can always be done, the NJP does it, but the need for separate journals is only motivated by that of producing hard copies. If that need is no longer there, then I think that the whole premise for having several independent sections (such as PRB) would no longer be there — and it does not affect in the least how you write the article. I do not believe that the Editors of PRX expect you to write your article any differently, if it is a condensed matter physics article.
        Speaking PRX: I repeat it, if they had that in mind when they started it, i.e., as a transitionary step toward a unified PR, it seems convoluted.
        A sudden conversion would be a “Big gamble” ? Why ? I don’t see that at all. Where else would people be submitting their papers ? They are essentially operating in conditions of monopoly, they could pretty much do whatever they want. And in any case, NJP did it and it is doing just fine.

    3. JF Says:

      I think, still, that there is something to be said for short articles (call them letter if you want). Maybe it’s a field bias — in my own area (geology), your typical paper is 15 – 20 pages long (which is huge, and imply that you’ll publish one a year if you are a reasonable researcher, 2 if you are good). This can be a bit daunting to read; and sometimes actually too long for the science you are putting into it (and you end up with piles of long articles describing in all minute details stuff that you do not really need to know about as a reader, such as the colour of the author’s shoes while he was doing field work :-)).

      A short (4 pages) article on the other hand can convey just one idea, and nothing else. Essentially, my rule of thumb is “if you can explain it in one sentence –the title– it will make a good 4 pages article”. And this is needed in two situations in my opinion: (i) high profile journals (Nature, Science, Geology in our case), which are a good venue to write about one single, brilliant idea that will change the way we think about a specific field; (ii) small contributions (a MSc project maybe?), not big science but a small, neat idea with incremental/regional meaning, that does not desserve a long article. Sadly we have no journal for that sort of contributions.

      • Massimo Says:

        See, I don’t get that at all. First of all, if you have no more than 4 pages to write of stuff that is actually important, why write 15 or 20 ? Personally, I think that conciseness is valued consistently, even without any explicit length limitation.
        Plus, in the era of electronic communication, where supplementary material can be attached and downloaded separately by those who need it — and that includes details that are of no interest to the vast majority of readers, but which could prove important to one or two scientists wanting to reproduce the findings — why not simply section and organize the paper so that in an executive summary the main idea results will be presented, with a bunch of appendices for the nerds and hair-splitters out there ?

        • Schlupp Says:

          “why not simply section and organize the paper so that in an executive summary the main idea results will be presented, with a bunch of appendices for the nerds and hair-splitters out there ?”

          Word. Yet, referees tend to complain if they feel that the the supplemental stuff is “too long”. I do not see why: If the actual paper is in some way incomplete, that would be a complaint I can understand, but given that supplemental material can contain movies, which are tons of data, I don’t see why two pages of detailed, boring, and in principle standard, derivations are a problem.

          I can relate to the concern that referees might not take the supplemental material seriously enough and questionable material might thus slip through. Only, this would rather *support* your suggestion of making it an “official” part of the paper.

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