Research papers: Lifetime word limits would unleash woe

Robert Gooding-Townsend is at the University of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada.

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If science’s current predicament has taught us one thing, it is that we should beware of perverse incentives (see M. Edwards and S. Roy Environ. Eng. Sci. 34, 51–61; 2017). So let us imagine the cascade of woe that could follow from Brian Martinson’s thought experiment of allocating scientists a lifetime word limit (Nature 550, 303; 2017).

Papers could become shorter and more obtuse, with content moved to appendices. ‘Pre-prints’ might never be published and instead would be squirrelled away on personal websites — dodging peer review. A new type of predatory journal that falsified word limits could stoke demand and become pervasive.

Research collaborations would decline. Supervisors would leave their names off papers, relying on the force of association to boost their reputation. And graduate students could have their lifetime word limits exploited, particularly if they do not continue with an academic career (see Nature 550, 429; 2017).

Nature 551, 565 (2017)

doi: 10.1038/d41586-017-07558-1

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