Month: December 2012

How Long Should a Scientific Publication be?

In one word: short. In two words: it depends.

A neuroscience expert faces the challenge of 100 new neuroscience articles being published on a daily basis. S/he will never be able to read all that. So, what can be done to get your own publication known to the community?

1) Know the reader and his/her lack of time
Science reading has become shorter as more and more articles get read per year but less time is spent per article. Within the last 30 years the articles read nearly doubled whereas the time spent per article nearly halved. Renear and colleagues (2009) call this a trend towards ‘literature surfing’ at the expense of careful reading.
Mind that this change in reading behaviour is not enough to compensate for the increase in scientific output. Over the same time span, while the number of read articles nearly doubled, the number of new science publications per year more than doubled. In a new and edgy field like neuroscience this trend is even more pronounced. Here, the output nearly quadrupled (see my earlier post).
scientis; reading; time; efficiency, time pressure
Scientists read more (orange) in less time (blue). This is efficient but is it good?
2) Follow publication trends
Perhaps as a result of the reduction in time spent reading each article, scientific publications have become shorter. To give an example, below I plot all reviews and review-like articles published in a well known neuroscience journal (Nature Reviews Neuroscience, as of April 2012). As can be seen easily, there is a significant trend to keep the reference sections shorter and shorter.
references in Nature Reviews Neuroscience
References in Nature Reviews Neuroscience: less and less and less
[Update 23/12/2016: this figure has the chronological order of reviews backwards. Reviews in NRN are actually getting longer and longer.]
3) Decide between efficiency and effectiveness
Efficiency: how much more do I get out of a long cumbersome article compared to a short one?
In terms of citations per page, the answer is nothing. Stanek posted a semi-humorous paper on arXiv reporting citations per publication page in the field of Astronomy. Between six and 50 pages there is not much influence of page count. One may call these papers normal articles. However, anything longer will reduce the citations added with each additional page. Curiously, anything shorter will actually increase it. The most efficient paper is 4 pages long and gathers around 16 citations, i.e. 4 citations per page.
Haslam (2010) did a similar analysis in Psychology. He compared short report formats with longer article formats and found reports to usually have a higher per page citation count than their longer cousins.
Effectiveness: how do I maximize the citations my publication can get?
Go for long articles. Stanek found articles around 50 pages long to receive the most citations. Haslam found longer article formats to have significantly higher mean citation counts.
If you strive for efficiency, go for a short report. They receive more impact per page. If you strive for effect, go for a long article. They receive more impact per publication.
4) A cautionary note: consider scientific progress
While shorter articles do allow for the faster dissemination of interesting findings, they offer less space to include replications of experimental effects and this can lead to more false positives making it into the field.
Furthermore, the field as such, i.e. some sort of accumulated understanding of what is known in different areas, can disintegrate if articles are not cross-linked through references. Ledgerwood & Sherman (2012) warn of an increased risk to rediscover what we already know because of a trend towards bite-size publications: science as a repetitive rather than cumulative process.
In a career sense the most worthwhile publications are the short ones. At least they will get read and cited efficiently. However, later in your career – if you haven’t succumbed to cynicism – you may actually care about science or be hopeful to make it in an academic career requiring a few highly cited articles. In this phase longer, more integrative articles are probably worth it.
Like with so many other phenomena, fast career-minded science is not necessarily good science.


Haslam, N. (2010). Bite-Size Science: Relative Impact of Short Article Formats Perspectives on Psychological Science, 5 (3), 263-264 DOI: 10.1177/1745691610369466

Ledgerwood, A., & Sherman, J. (2012). Short, Sweet, and Problematic? The Rise of the Short Report in Psychological Science Perspectives on Psychological Science, 7 (1), 60-66 DOI: 10.1177/1745691611427304

Renear AH, & Palmer CL (2009). Strategic reading, ontologies, and the future of scientific publishing. Science (New York, N.Y.), 325 (5942), 828-32 PMID: 19679805

Krzysztof Zbigniew Stanek (2008). How long should an astronomical paper be to increase its Impact? arXiv arXiv: 0809.0692v1


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1) from Renear & Palmer, 2009, p. 829

2) self-generated


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When to switch on background music

Some things of our daily lives have become so common, we hardly notice them anymore. Background music is one such thing. Whether you are in a supermarket, a gym or a molecular biology laboratory, you can constantly hear it. More than that, even in quiet environments like the office or the library people get out their mp3-players and play background music. Is this a form of boosting one’s productivity or are people enjoying music at the cost of getting things done? Research on the effect of background music can give an answer.

A German research team led by Juliane Kämpfe did a meta-analysis of nearly 100 studies on this topic. It turns out that certain tasks benefit from background music. They are noticeably mindless tasks: mundane behaviours like eating or driving as well as sports. Below you can hear how Arnold Schwarzenegger uses this finding to great effect.



Music also has a positive effect on mood regulation like controlling your nervousness before a job interview. (I have discussed similar stuff before when looking into why people willingly listen to sad music.)
However, music can also have a detrimental effect. It can draw your attention away from the things you should be focussing on. As a result a negative influence tends to be seen in situations which require concentration: memorising and text understanding. In other words: don’t play it in a university library as these students did.



So far, so unsurprising. However, one positive effect stands out from the picture I painted above. The German meta-analysis mentions a curious, positive effect of music on simple math tests. This is in line with a recent study by Avila and colleagues who found a positive effect of music on logical reasoning. Could it be that the negative effect of background music on concentration tasks is found because these tasks are nearly always language based? Music and language have been claimed to share a lot of mental resources. This special link between the two modalities could perhaps explain the negative effect. It is too early to tell, but there may be a set of intellectual tasks which benefit from music: the abstract, mathematical or logical ones.
The conclusion is clear. If you want to get things done, choose carefully whether music will aid you or hold you back. Think Arnie or Gangnam Style.

Avila, C., Furnham, A., & McClelland, A. (2012). The influence of distracting familiar vocal music on cognitive performance of introverts and extraverts Psychology of Music, 40 (1), 84-93 DOI: 10.1177/0305735611422672

Kampfe, J., Sedlmeier, P., & Renkewitz, F. (2011). The impact of background music on adult listeners: A meta-analysis Psychology of Music, 39 (4), 424-448 DOI: 10.1177/0305735610376261

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