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Guide-only word counts - the start of a (perfectly reasonable) trend?

December 10th, 2020, by Guy Harris

Journals have long specified strict word counts for submitted papers. Indeed, some online submission systems count the words in a submitted paper, and automatically reject those which exceed the limit, even if only by one word. Authors are fully aware of these limits, and often take painstaking efforts to meet them.

In the era of paper journals, this was understandable – page space was limited. But in the new era of online publication, strict word counts seem less important.

So, we were pleased and surprised to come across one journal from a major publisher with (in our opinion) a far more enlightened approach:

Word count: please note that our word counts act as a guide only. Longer papers are acceptable, and abstracts are permitted to exceed 250 words (up to a maximum limit of 550 words). We encourage authors to add as much important detail as necessary to the abstract.

This information was provided in a private letter from the journal’s editor-in-chief to the author. The journal’s Instructions for Authors made no such allowance. So we will not divulge the journal’s name. But let’s read that last sentence again:

We encourage authors to add as much important detail as necessary to the abstract.

In the online era, with no paper limits, this seems a far more reasonable approach. Note the large difference between the apparent and actual limit: 250 vs 550 words. For authors with complex reporting needs, this flexibility could be an important factor in journal selection. Let’s hope other journals follow suit.

We encourage authors request an increase in word count, when necessary. To help, we’ve included this template text below. Please feel free to cut and paste it into the cover letter when you submit your paper. I suggest adding it as a single paragraph, just before the final paragraph. Add in the current word count and what it applies to – the abstract or the whole paper:


Although the journal has a word limit of [X] words for the [Abstract/overall manuscript], we have found that meeting this limit is difficult, and we have had to remove some important detail that we would rather include. We therefore request that we be permitted to increase the word length for this paper to about [Y] words.