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I’ve been looking through the recent issue of Analysis. It has 13 papers, of which one is on meta-ethics, and there’s nothing in either normative or applied ethics. This is a fairly typical showing. There are occasional papers on free will (which is a distinct topic, combining metaphysics and ethics), but very little ethics as such, and (my focus here) hardly any normative or, indeed, applied ethics. Why? And why does this matter?

As most of you know, Analysis is an excellent journal that accepts only short papers. There is no similar journal called “Moral Analysis” (why?), but there is no reason to think that Analysis discriminates against (normative) ethics. The advantage of looking at Analysis in this context is that one can see at a glance the topics covered among the circa 60 short papers that it publishes every year. But my impression from other journals as well is that not many short ethics papers get published.

Of course there are sometimes very good reasons to write a long paper, as when one is trying to present a really complex typology, or to make particularly detailed and difficult distinctions, or has a very long and convoluted argument, or needs to cover much historical ground. But such factors shouldn’t be present in (say) normative ethics more than in most other areas of philosophy, I would think. And when reading the typically long papers being written in moral philosophy, it is not rare for me to feel that the author could have said it all with far fewer words. (One sometimes also feels when reading a book that it could have made a really good long paper, but I’ll put that one aside.) Surely it is prima facie a virtue to write a shorter rather than a longer paper. And again, I cannot see that there is something inherent in ethics that requires greater length than most other philosophical fields.

So what is going on? I am not sure, but it might be useful to think about this. If indeed my observation that ethicists hardly write short papers is correct, this might say something problematic about us. For example, that we are less sure of ourselves than other philosophers, and thus feel that we have to go on and on. Or that there is a pro-length bias in the guidance we give to our students. Or in accepting papers for publication. Or that the subject makes people feel that they always have to (pretend to) be very serious, because morality is such a grave topic. Or even that ethicists simply tend to have less fun. Surely the playful, experimental mode is something that makes for good philosophy?

Do you tend to write longer ethics papers because you have the perception that journals prefer longer papers? [See 'Why do ethicists write such longer papers?' for the discussion]

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Comments

  1. 1. Posted by Thom Brooks | May 2, 2008 11:05 am

    I could not agree with you more…and it is highly curious. Other than reply/discussion pieces, it is very rare to find short pieces written in the area of ethics. (Of course, you remain perhaps a lone ranger on a new frontier here, Saul…) Analysis is certainly known for excellent work, but we can also find the odd shorter piece elsewhere, such as in Logique et Analyse (where I contributed a brief paper on the saving the greatest number debate).

    Since the Journal of Moral Philosophy first started accepting papers in 2003 and first appeared in 2004, I do not believe I have once received a short, non-reply piece ever. Things seems a genuine indication of the number of words papers in moral and political philosophy find themselves, rather than an aberration….

  2. 2. Posted by Jussi Suikkanen | May 2, 2008 12:52 pm

    Saul,

    why is there no reason to think that Analysis discriminates against normative ethics and ethics in general? This is just anecdotal evidence but I have talked to quite a lot of ethicists whose work is being published in other first-rate journals but whose short papers do not get in Analysis even to the hands of referees. I don’t think all of these people are writing worse *short* papers than long ones. So, I actually think there might be some discrimination going on.

  3. 3. Posted by Saul Smilansky | May 2, 2008 1:55 pm

    Thom,

    Thanks. I do believe that size matters (in philosophy), and I try to write short papers when possible. This might just be a personal inclination, but I think that the issue goes beyond inclination or personal taste (perhaps into the territory where, as Bernard Williams would say, style is connected to what one is trying to do). I didn’t want this post to be about moral paradoxes, but the neglect of moral paradoxes of which I’ve written before seems pertinent here: paradoxes are typically both short and fun, and if I am right then some broad inclinations of moral philosophers towards bulk and over-seriousness also help explain the neglect of moral paradoxes. Putting paradoxes aside, the issues of length and fun are of course distinct: we might have had many short and grim ethics papers. But my guess is that things are connected here as well: that the not uncommon feeling among non-moral philosophers, that philosophical seriousness can go together with playfulness (and is even related to the daring of playfulness), is less widely shared by ethicists, and results in an inclination to write both long and “heavy” papers. So this is not only about the length of ethics papers, but about the culture of philosophical ethics.

  4. 4. Posted by Saul Smilansky | May 2, 2008 2:19 pm

    Jussi,

    You might be right, I have no real way of telling. I think that Analysis has something like a 10% acceptance rate, so (like others) ethicists can expect frequent rejection. I vaguely seem to remember a note in Analysis some years ago asking for papers in moral and political philosophy, because such submissions were under-represented. And Thom’s report about JMF is striking, and lends some empirical proof to what were merely my impressions. For your case to stand you would need to argue further that most of the ethicists being rejected by Analysis then give up on submitting the papers anywhere else (such as to Thom). Again, I cannot rule this out, but it seems likely that there is at least less writing of short papers in ethics than in other areas. Greater awareness of this issue might gradually help change things on both the “seller” and “buyer” sides (perhaps some editors might want to come forward and state that they are happy to receive short papers for consideration, which might help more ethicists to decide to write them).

  5. 5. Posted by Neil Levy | May 3, 2008 1:57 am

    Part of the reason is that the standard is set by the two leading journals in the area – Ethics and PPA – and they both have editorial practices that encourage long papers (from what I understand, Ethics has multiple reviewers, each of whom has to be satisfied; PPA is known to like a certain kind of paper). But part of the reason also is no doubt due to the state of play in ethics: there are few nice views out there which can be easily approached via a nice neat counterexample. Whether this is due to the nature of ethics or to the way in which it happens to be approached I don’t know.

  6. 6. Posted by David Hunter | May 3, 2008 9:11 am

    Applied ethics at least and certainly medical ethics has plenty of venues for shorter papers, the Journal of Medical Ethics for example has a preferred paper length of 3500 words. Since they publish monthly I suspect as an empirical claim ethics papers are probably on average shorter than metaphysics papers…

  7. 7. Posted by Constantine Sandis | May 3, 2008 8:49 pm

    I guess it’s impossible to prove that Analysis discriminates against work in ethics without any inside information. But there is some evidence for the following possible explanations:

    -More papers on paradoxes get published in Analysis than in any other journal, perhaps for fairly obvious reasons (I’d certainly advise people working on moral paradoxes to submit work to Analysis!)

    – There are more high-rated Ethics journals than journals that are specifically on other topics in philosophy. The Journal of applied philosophy publishes short pieces, so may be a more obvious place for some of the applied papers to be sent.

  8. 8. Posted by Saul Smilansky | May 7, 2008 1:56 am

    Thanks for all the comments so far. If the topic-specific moral philosophy journals (e.g. the medical ethics ones) are friendly towards shorter papers, that seems to me good; I am not very familiar with these and my comments were generated first by looking at Analysis, and then by thinking about the general-philosophical and general-ethics journals. As I said, I doubt whether Analysis has an anti-ethics bias, but in any case things shouldn’t depend on this one journal. In my experience there are some other journals that are willing to accept short papers (Utilitas, Ratio and Philosophy, for example). We need to distinguish here between two questions:

    1. Do many people NOT write short papers because they believe that (with the exception of Analysis) the journals insist on longer papers?

    2. Is that perception true?

    I think that (2) is less true than people might think as one can get short papers published, but nevertheless there is a lot of true in it. As to (1), it’s harder to know, but I suspect that there is some truth to this, but also that there might be other (not philosophically relevant) reasons why so few short ethics papers get written (again, setting aside the medical ethics journals and the like). I think that it would be good for our profession if, in general, we were more aware of this issue. It would be good if people who think that they might like to write short papers would do so, take a risk, and thereby put pressure on journals to accept them. And people who never thought about writing a short paper, might want to think whether there are good reasons (apart from getting published) for this. Finally, I think that it would be good if journals signalled that they were ready to consider short papers (and those that are not, think how philosophicallly relevant that bias is).

  9. 9. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | May 7, 2008 1:42 pm

    Saul, thanks for this great post! This topic has been on my mind for quite some time. I have to admit that I do tend to write longer ethics papers because I have this perception that most journals on the whole prefer such papers. Whether the perception is correct or not, I’m not sure. I do think that that it would be good to have venues where shorter ethics papers can appear. By the way, by a ‘short’ paper, I take it — following Analysis — to mean a paper less than 4000 words and preferably less than 3000 words. Just a follow-up query: Do Utilitas, Ratio and Philosophy publish papers that are less than 3000 words?

  10. 10. Posted by S. Matthew Liao | May 7, 2008 1:51 pm

    I’ve just put up a poll on this topic. Vote away :)

  11. 11. Posted by Greg Bognar | May 7, 2008 3:02 pm

    Let’s admit it, most of the major books in moral/political philosophy are unnecessary long. In fact, I can hardly think of any major work that would not have benefited from some shortening, sometimes by 100-200 pages. As grad students, we read these books, and we inevitably model our writing styles on them, so we end up writing long papers. Changing this later requires effort, which is hard. I am not saying this is the full explanation, but it seems to be one factor.

  12. 12. Posted by Saul Smilansky | May 8, 2008 7:19 am

    Greg – I agree, sometimes it’s just some bad models of writing we have; and also, writing a short paper can require extra effort. Sometimes the virtues of (analytic) philosophy, when carried to excess, turn into vices (e.g. when we raise every conceivable objection, including ones that don’t really matter and that no one will raise in opposition to our point, just for the sake of raising it; I’m often guilty of this). And sometimes it’s like talking – many people like to hear themselves talk at great length. One problem is that it’s not clear that many people “listen”, i.e. read the vast majority of philosophy papers. In a given journal, it seems to me that the chances that one’s paper will actually be READ are prima facie greater if it is a shorter rather than a longer paper. With longer papers my impression is that many people just skim at best, and read only if they “must” (i.e. it’s in their direct field and/or by figures that cannot be avoided); while shorter papers pose less of a disincentive.

    Matthew – yes, I guess the under-3000 words for really short and under-4000 for short is a good rule, although under-5000 also isn’t that common and I would settle for that. And in reply to your second question – yes, I have published under-3000’s in Ratio, Utilitas and Philosophy in recent years. I wonder about all these being UK journals. I have published recently in Philosophical Studies an under-5000, so that journal might be short-friendly. I suspect from their site that Ethics might also be (my only paper there was, alas, long). This isn’t very scientific, and reports about other people’s positive and negative experiences with journals would be helpful. In any case, it seems that Thom has bound himself above to accept the dwarfish standard for the Journal of Moral Philosophy :)

    Well, at least our situation is far better when compared to the law journals, which are typically student-edited and where surveying the landscape since Adam and Eve seems to be the convention – and one can often find 80 page monsters.

  13. 13. Posted by John Alexander | May 9, 2008 4:38 pm

    I wonder if there is a fear that we will be perceived as being ‘shallow’ or ‘unknowledgeable’ if we do not write long papers. One question has not been brought up (although one of Saul’s comments suggests it) is whether or not we are ‘showing off’ when we write by referring to as many possible alternatives as we can think of and bringing in those who have written on those alternatives and show why they are wrong. I wish that every publisher that publishes long papers (to me anything over 5000 words) and books would require that the author write a summary of their main argument that could be read before the entire work is read. (Parfit’s outline comes to mind as an example.) If one does not understand the summary then one can read the work (or the relevant parts of the work that is not understood). If I understand the general argument I can tell who will agree with it and who will not, assuming I know the literature. If I do not know the literature then I cannot judge whether or not the author knows it or not. It seems that we should be asking ourselves why we write as we do; what are we trying to demonstrate on our work; that we have a good argument or that we know the literature? How many journals publish papers that seem more like a review of the literature, then a sustained argument? How many of us have had papers rejected not because the main argument was thought to be bad by the reviewer, but because we had not ‘adequately’ addressed the literature? Anther question to ask (already suggested) is what type of papers do we require of our students? I have now adopted the policy of having my students write papers outlining one argument and analysing one premise of that argument that cannot exceed 1000 words. It is amazing how hard it is for student’s to do this when they have been taught how to write ‘English’ papers following the APA or MLA or Chicago format.

  14. 14. Posted by Saul Smilansky | May 16, 2008 1:35 pm

    John, these are excellent comments that give us all things to think about. For me, the most important thing is the freedom to write short papers if and when one thinks that it would be philosophically good to do so, and one wants to. There are papers that of their very nature must be long, and that is fine. Some people’s style of doing philosophy may always produce long papers, and that is also fine; I don’t want to force any philosopher into writing short papers (although I can see that it makes for good training). After all, a philosopher may not publish articles, of whatever length, but just books, and s/he might still be worthwhile reading. But I think that (a) the existence of more short ethics papers would be good, and (b) the fact that (it seems) quite a few people refrain from writing their papers IN THE LENGTH THAT THEY WOULD LIKE TO, just because of the conventions of the journals, is just bad.

  15. 15. Posted by Henry S. Richardson | October 29, 2008 8:05 am

    While I actually think that there’s a good reason why ethics articles tend to be longer than other philosophy articles, having to do with the way that respect for the philosophical tradition in ethics combines with responsiveness to ordinary people’s considered views, I like to note that Ethics has just taken a modest step to discourage overly long submissions (which–hard to believe in the context of the above discussion–amounts to discouraging submissions longer than 15,000 words, of which we get not a few). See our revised Instructions for Authors:

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