I have a question: what’s the “natural” size of a publishable linguistics paper? I ask because after indulging in a reading binge of papers I had agreed to look at for various reasons, it seems that 50 is the assumed magic number. And this number, IMO, is too high. If it really takes 50 pages for you to make your point, then either you are having trouble locating the point that you want to make, or you are trying to make too many of them in a single paper. Why care?
I care about this for two reasons. First I think that the size of the “natural” paper is a fair indicator of the theoretical sophistication of a field. Second, I believe that if the “natural” size is, say, 50 pages, then 50 pages will be the benchmark of a “serious” paper and people will aim to produce 50 page papers even if this means taking a 20 page idea and blowing it up to 50 pages. And we all know where this leads. To bloated papers that make it harder than it should be (and given the explosion of new (and excellent) research, it’s already harder than it used to be) to stay current with the new ideas in the field. Let me expand on these two points just a bit.
There are several kinds of linguistics papers. The ones that I am talking would be classified as in theoretical linguistics, specifically syntax. The aim of such a paper is to make a theoretical point. Data and argument are marshaled in service of making this point. Now, in a field with well-developed theory, this can be usually done economically. Why? Because the theoretical question/point of interest can be crisply stated and identified. Thus, the data and arguments of interest can be efficiently deployed wrt this identified theoretical question/point. The less theoretically firm the discipline the harder it is to do this well and the longer (more pages) it takes to identify the relevant point etc. This is what I mean by saying that the size of the “natural” paper can be taken as a (rough) indicator of how theoretically successful a field is. In the “real” sciences, only review papers go on for 50 pages. Most are under 10 and many are less than that (it is called “Phys Rev Letters” for a reason). In the “real” sciences, one does not extensively review earlier results. One cites them, takes what is needed and moves on. Put another way, in “real” sciences one builds on earlier results, one does not rehearse them and re-litigate them. They are there to be built on and your contribution is one more brick in a pretty well specified wall of interlocking assumptions, principles and empirical results.
This is less true in theoretical syntax. Most likely it is because practitioners do not agree as widely about the theoretical results in syntax than people in physics agree about the results there. But, I suspect, that there is another reason as well. In many of the real sciences, papers don’t locally aim for truth (of course, every scientific endeavor globally does). Here’s what I mean.
Many theoretical papers are explorations of what you get by combining ideas in a certain way. The point of interest is that some combinations lead to interesting empirical, theoretical or conceptual consequences. The hope is that these consequences are also true (evaluated over a longer run), but the immediate assumption of many papers is that the assumptions are (or look) true enough (or are interesting enough even if recognizably false) to explore even if there are (acknowledged) problems with them. My impression is that this is not the accepted practice in syntax. Here if you start with assumptions that have “problems” (in syntax, usually, (apparent) empirical difficulties) then it is thought illegitimate to use these assumptions or further explore their consequences. And this has two baleful influences in paper writing: it creates an incentive to fudge one’s assumptions and/or creates a requirement to (re)defend them. In either case, we get pressure to bloat.
A detour: I have never really understood why exploring problematic assumptions (PA) is so regularly dismissed. Actually, I do understand. It is a reflex of theoretical syntax’s general anti-theoretical stance. IMO, theory is that activity that explores how assumptions connect to lead to interesting consequences. That’s what theoretical exploration is. If done correctly, it leads to a modicum of explanation.
This activity is different from how theory is often described in the syntax literature. There it is (often) characterized as a way of “capturing” data. On this view, the data are unruly and wild and need to be corralled and tamed. Theory is that instrument used to pen it in. But if your aim is to “capture” the data, then capturing some, while loosing others is not a win. This is why problematic assumptions (PA) are non grata. Empirically leaky PAs are not interesting precisely because they are leaky. Note, then, that the difference between “capturing” and “explaining” is critical. Leaky PAs might be explanatorily rich even if empirically problematic. Explanation and data coverage are two different dimensions of evaluation. The aim, of course, is to get to those accounts that both explain and are empirically justified. The goal of “capture” blurs these two dimensions. It is also, IMO, very counterproductive. Here’s why.
Say that one takes a PA and finds that it leads to a nice result, be it empirical or theoretical or conceptual. Then shouldn’t this be seen as an argument for PA regardless of its other problems? And shouldn’t this also be an argument that the antecedent problems the PA suffers from might possibly be apparent rather than real? All we really can (and should) do as theorists is explore the consequences of sets of assumptions. One hopes that over time the consequences as a whole favor one set over others. Hence, there is nothing methodologically inapposite in assuming some PA if it fits the bill. In fact, it is a virtue theoretically speaking for it allows us to more fully explore that idea and see if we can understand why even if false it seems to be doing useful work.
Let’s now turn to the second more pragmatic point. There has been an explosion of research in syntax. It used to be possible to keep up with, by reading, everything. I don’t believe that this is still possible. However, it would make it easier to stay tuned to the important issues if papers were more succinct. I think I’ve said this on FOL before (though I can’t recall where), but I have often found it to be the case that a short form version of a later published paper (say a NELs or WCCFL version) is more useful than the longer more elaborated descendant. Why? Because the longer version is generally more “careful,” and not always in a good way. By this I mean that there are replies to reviewers that require elaboration but that often obscure the main idea. Not always, but often enough.
So as not to end on too grumpy a note, let me suggest the following template for syntax papers. It answers three questions: What’s the problem? Why is it interesting? How to solve it?
The first section should be short and to the point. A paper that cannot identify a crisp problem is one that should likely be rewritten.
The second section should also be short, but it is important. Not all problems are equally interesting. It’s the job of a paper to indicate why the reader should care. In linguistics this means identifying how the results bear on the structure of FL/UG. What light does your question, if answered, hope to shed on the central question of modern GG, the fine structure of FL.
The last section is the meat, generally. Only tell the reader enough to understand the explanation to the question being offered. For a theory paper, raw data should be offered but the discussion should proceed by discussing the structures that these data imply. GGers truck in grammars, which truck in rules and structures and derivations. A theory paper that is not careful and explicit about these is not written correctly. Many paeprs in very good journals take great care to get the morphological diacritics right in the glosses but often eschew providing explicit derivations and phrase markers that exhibit the purported theoretical point. For GG, God is not in the data points, but in the derivations etc. that these data points are in service of illuminating.
Let me go a bit over the top here. IMO, journals would do well to stop publishing most data, reserving this for available methods addenda available online. The raw data is important, and the exposition should rely on it and make it available but the exposition should advert to it not present it. This is now standard practice in journals like Science and there is no reason why it should not be standard practice in ling journals too. It would immediately cut down the size of most articles by at least a third (try this for a typical NLLT paper for example).
Only after the paper has offered its novelties should one compare what’s been offered to other approaches in the field. I agree that this is suggestion should not be elevated to a hard and fast rule. Sometimes a proposal is usefully advanced by demonstrating the shortcomings in others that it will repair. However, more often than not comparisons of old and new are hard to make without some advanced glimpse of the new. In my experience, comparison is most useful after the fact.
Delaying comparison will also have another positive feature, I believe. A proposal might be interesting even if it does no better than earlier approaches. I suspect that we upfront “problems” with extant hypotheses because it is considered illicit to offer an alternative unless the current favorite is shown to be in some way defective. There is a founder prejudice operative that requires that the reigning champion not be discomfited unless proven to be inferior. But this is false. It is useful to know that there are many routes to a common conclusion (see here for discussion). It is often even useful to have an alternative that does less well.
So, What, Why How with a 15-20 page limit, with the hopes of lowering this to 10-15. If that were to happen I would feel a whole lot guiltier for being so far behind in my reading.
 Actually, I do understand. It is a reflex of theoretical syntax’s general anti-theory stance.
 This might be showing my age for I think that it is well nigh impossible nowadays to publish a short version of a paper in a NELs or WCCFL proceeding and then an elaborated version in more prestigious journal. If so, take it from me!