Or, in defence of the 4 page paper.
As anyone who knows me can probably attest, I can sometimes passionately defend one position and then change my mind completely and hold the opposite position just as fervently. This post is an example of one of these changes of mind…
Today I want to talk about the four-page paper.
The four-page (plus/minus epsilon) paper is almost a cliche in physics on par with that of the three-part novel of the 19th century: when it’s four pages long you can submit it to PRL, or, maybe with some extra work, Nature or Science. And these are gold-class journals: if you get enough PRLs then this is likely to gain the respect of you colleagues and, more importantly, impress hiring/tenure/promotion committees. So it’s not hard to see why the four-page paper is an attractive format to aim for. I don’t want to dwell on the rightness or wrongness of the academic system here. Like it or not this is the way things currently are, and I’m not going to try and change it right now. (That’s a long post for another year.) I just want to focus on what four-page papers are doing to scientific scholarship.
Much has been said about how the dominance of the four-page paper is a “bad thing” for scientific scholarship. Well, actually, at least, I’ve heard lots of people complaining about it (including myself). Now that I mention it I can’t find anything actually written down; maybe noone has the courage to do so? The brief summary of these criticisms is that four-page papers are, variously, incentivising authors to: (a) chop up perfectly good longer papers into many four-page “epsilon” papers; (b) “hype up” their results by talking about how revolutionary they are; and (c) forcing authors to crunch lots of valuable calculations into a ridiculously abbreviated form.
I hear comparatively fewer people talking about what’s good about the four-page paper. I wanted to set down some ideas here that I feel aren’t entirely fairly acknowledged in over-dinner rants. My actual position now is that the four-page paper format has it’s flaws, but isn’t *all* bad.
1. I agree, without question, that a paper without length restrictions can only be a better paper. Why? Well, introducing constraints to an optimisation problem can never improve the optimal value! But, sometimes, constraints force us to be more creative: e.g. vegetarian food can be much nicer. By being forced to communicate an idea in four pages you can be inspired to be much more creative…
2. Four-page papers are easier to read. I am a very lazy person and now I have less and less free time. I typically don’t even download papers which are 30 pages or more, I just look at the abstract. I don’t think I’m alone in this. The point here is that reader attention is a finite resource: four-page papers are not a major commitment, and could be skimmed rapidly for relevance. Longer papers require more energy. In this world where you have to compete simply for the attention of the reader you have to acknowledge that a little bit of marketing is in order.
3. Supplementary material! You can probably say the main idea in four pages. If you want to include the details use the supplementary material. This counts as four pages for me: the idea and argument are still expressed in four pages. The details are there for the interested reader.
My feeling is that the four-page paper functions extremely well as an extended abstract rather than a proper paper. But often an abstract is all that is required to inspire and motivate further research and communicate a new argument/technique. (I’m reminded of the tale that Landau would only read the abstract of a paper and then rederive its contents… I don’t think this is so unrealistic in many cases.)