Nature Reviews Neuroscience

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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Neuroscience is forgetting.




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

2) self-generated


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Neuroscience is Forgetting

The scientific enterprise, like anything else humans are doing, is subject to fashions, trends and hypes. Old ideas get replaced by new ones; good new ideas spread; progress is made. However, is Neuroscience forgetting where it came from?

This is not that hard to investigate in a quantitative way because every source that is cited by an article is referenced. Below, I plot the ages of all references found in reviews and review-like articles (opinions, perspectives…) published in a well known Neuroscience journal (Nature Reviews Neuroscience). As you can see, the relative majority of articles which a review cites are very very recent, i.e. less than two years old. Twenty year old sources hardly every get mentioned.
Forgetting Rate in Nature Reviews Neuroscience
One could argue that the pattern seen above – the very fast rate of decline which levels off near zero – is simply a reflection of the publication rate in Neuroscience. If more is published, more can get referenced. However, compare the above plot with the one below, which shows the publication rate in the Neurosciences from 2011 all the way back to 1975. An increase in publication rate is there but it is not nearly as quick as the aforementioned graph would have you believe.
Neuroscience Publication Rate
Something else is happening.
Notice the white bars in Figure 2. These show the overall number of reviews in Neuroscience. While in 1975 only 46 Neuroscience reviews got published, in 2011 it was nearly 3000. Given that it is impossible to read anything like 40000 original articles each year, it makes sense to only read the summaries. Perhaps, once summarised, an original article’s gist survives in the form of a brief mention in a review while its details are simply forgotten.
Another possibility is the decline effect I blogged about before. Old articles which proved unreliable should be forgotten in order to edge closer to some scientific truth. They may have suffered from publication bias, sub-optimal techniques and/or sampling bias.
So, Neuroscience is indeed forgetting. However, whether this is all that bad is another question.


1) Data processed with own code. Original data from NRN website.
2) Data from Web of Science.