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 , 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 ?
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 . 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 .
Whether they warrant the appellative “letter” or not ) 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.
 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…
 Yes, I have decided to collect PRX jokes. This is my first contribution.
 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.
 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…