Shorth is better than length

Dr Seuss wisely stated “shorth is better than length”. And it seems academia is slowly getting the message. Brief reports are here and will likely play an increasing role in Educational and Developmental Psychology. Having spent a while working with people in public health, I have been infected with their obsession with the brief. As Dr Seuss also said:

A writer who breeds more words than he needs creates a chore for the reader who readers.

With this advice in mind I have tended to target brief reports and encouraged others to do so. There is an issue I am seeing though. Unlike in public health, Ed and Dev reviewers are not really sure how to review brief reports. Today, for example, a post-doc at my institute was hauled over the coals by three reviewers all of whom said she had not done a thorougher review of the literature. The problem? The format she submitted to only allows for six references. My general experience is that reviewers are bringing across their expectations from long form articles and seem unwilling, unable, or unsure of how to adapt their reviews to the brief report format.

Some of the problem might lies with the editors. Maybe they don’t communicate expectations about brief reports to reviewers clearly enough. Maybe some of it is the fault of the publisher who don’t do a sufficient job signposting that an article is a brief report. Some of it is also likely teething problems as the Ed and Dev community starts to come to terms with the brief report format. What ever the reason, I think we need to address this if we are to embrace this format. And I think we should embrace the format. Generally my writing gets better and my ideas clearer when I am forced to whittle them down to the bare minimum.

So what should we do? In the long term I think there needs to be a rethink about the way different article types are flagged to reviewers by publishing systems and editors likely need to get better at: a) signalling to potential reviewers that a paper is a brief report and what that means for a given journal; b) providing authors clear directions on how to address reviewers who have requested changes that break with a brief report format; and c) providing reviewers with feedback. In the short term, when you review you should pay attention to the articles submission type and find out what the implications of this are (e.g., is there a limitation on the number of references allowed). As an author, I think it does not hurt to alert a reviewer to the fact you have written a brief report by using language like: “In this brief report …” rather than “In this paper…”.

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