Brevity in scientific writing is a good thing – until it isn’t

Nearly all of us need to work at making our scientific writing more concise. I’m definitely part of “nearly all of us” – my usual first draft needs to be trimmed down by 30%, producing a second draft that needs to lose another 30%. In my experience, making a manuscript shorter nearly always makes it clearer and better, in part by forcing it to become less “science-y” (forcing it into active voice, requiring the jettisoning of long fancy words in favour of short simple ones, and so on). So my attention was caught the other day by a reference to the recent publication of the “second shortest” philosophy paper. That paper consists only of its title: “Can a good philosophical contribution be made just by asking a question?”*

Unfortunately, the answer to the paper’s title is pretty clearly “no”.** Or, at least, if we revise slightly to “Can a good philosophical contribution be made just by asking this question?”, then the answer is “no”. I know, that sounds rather snarky, especially as I’m not a philosopher. But here’s why I’m confident in my assessment: the title-only “paper” was published on page 54 of the December 2022 issue of Metaphilosophy. But pages 55-60 of the same issue are occupied by another paper, by the same authors, entitled ‘Commentary on “Can a good philosophical contribution be made just by asking a question?’”. And that paper explains the first one.

The extended argument is actually quite interesting and well written. I’m arguing only that the title-only version fails, in that few readers (even regular readers of the journal Metaphilosophy) will understand the authors’ intentions from it. The explanatory paper argues that the title-only paper “works”, deploying among other things a reference to Duchamp’s “Fountain” and this cleverly written paragraph:

While [self-referential writings of this sort] are not unheard of in academic philosophy, they are somewhat out of step with the contemporary standard. That standard enjoins us to announce our theoretical aims with what would otherwise be perverse explicitness, in the paradigm case starting out with “In this paper we argue that . . .”. We have nothing against that sort of philosophical writing. There is a place for it, a place our own writings often aim to occupy. But there is also a place for philosophical writings that pursue their aims obliquely. (Habgood-Coote et al. 2022)

But ironically, the mere existence of an argument that the title-only paper “works” seems to buttress the case that it does not.

The title-only paper isn’t the only attempt I’ve seen at setting a brevity record – here are a few more. Some of those attempts are better than others, but I don’t think any of them is very successful as a piece of scientific communication. And there’s a general lesson to be had here.*** We tend to measure the brevity (or inversely, length) of a piece of writing by its word count; or, if we’re a bit more sophisticated, by its character count.  But those are both wrong. A piece of writing is really only shorter, in the way that matters, if it takes a reader less time or effort to draw the conclusions its author wants them to draw. Often (usually, if the author is me), cutting a few words from a draft makes the reader’s job easier. But when cutting a few more words makes the reader’s job harder instead, it’s time to stop. The title-only paper went past that point – way past it, I think.

© Stephen Heard  February 28, 2023

Image: The chickens know. © Doug Savage, via Savage Chickens.

*^If you’re wondering what the first shortest philosophy paper is, well, I did too. Here it is.

**^See Betteridge’s Law of Headlines, although I think only confirmation bias makes that feel true.

***^If you’re here today just for the fun of short-paper-record attempts, that’s fine. That’s what I was here for when I started writing the post. But I can’t help myself, I see general lessons in everything.

4 thoughts on “Brevity in scientific writing is a good thing – until it isn’t

  1. Peter Apps

    Possibly apochyphal; an entance exam to Oxford asked; “Is this a good question” and a candidate wrote “If that is a good question, this is an excellent answer”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ScientistSeesSquirrel Post author

      I’d never seen this one!

      It’s a bit of a stunt, of course, because the meat of the paper is packed into the title – and there still isn’t enough information there for modern conventions. But I love it anyway.



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