You have reached the point where you are happy with your research, you’ve completed a manuscript and selected a target journal. Yet while doing the final checks, you find that one of those pesky requirements sets the maximum length of the research paper, which you have greatly exceeded.
As an editor and journal reviewer, I often find that authors use too many words to convey one idea, either because they have too much to say or English is not their first language. This redundancy occurs when you unnecessarily repeat something that can muddle the message and divert the reader’s attention, which should be avoided. But, how to shorten a research paper while making sure your message is clear? Do not despair, I have five simple tips to help you achieve just that.
1. The first thing to reduce word count in research papers is to focus. Concepts should be defined once, either in the Introduction or Discussion section, but not both. Methodologies are also only needed once, and if established then make sure to cite the relevant reference. Use tables and figures to present the data; numbers from tables or figures should not be repeated in the text except in unusual cases where the numbers have a special significance. The conclusion should summarize the answers to the research question and not repeat the results.
2. Avoid redundancy. What do I mean by redundant? It refers to unnecessary words. For example, “all over the world” can be replaced with “worldwide” and instead of writing “in spite of the fact that” you can use “although.” Redundancy also happens when using two words together that have the same meaning (e.g., merge together, close proximity, end result, or shorter/longer in length). Another way to reduce the length of a research paper is to avoid repetition in your sentences (e.g., for the measurement of the nitrogen concentration, we measured the content of nitrogen using the Kjeldahl method; everything before the comma can be deleted). Hyphenated words are usually considered one word, so you can also hyphenate compound adjectives that modify a noun (e.g., water-soluble fertilizers instead of fertilizers that are soluble in water). When giving a comparison for which there are an equal number of elements, use the word “respectively” (e.g., the oxygen and nitrogen flow were set at 80 and 5 ml/min, respectively).
3. When citing papers, avoid using introductory expressions. How often do you read papers repeating “another research study found/demonstrated that” or “scientists have noted that” or the sometimes inexplicable need to use the author name? State your claim directly and cite the relevant literature, your prose will be remarkably more authoritative and it will also reduce the word count in research papers.
4. Using irrelevant words is a common pitfall. Don’t use words such as “notably” or “interestingly” or “unfortunately.” it may be just one word but they are redundant in scientific writing and can be deleted to shorten your research paper as they add no value. Also, avoid superlatives––adjectives used to mean something is the best of its kind––such as “it is extremely hot.” Give details (e.g., the precise temperature) and let the numbers do the talking.
5. As some journals set a very low word limit for this section, the length of the Abstract will be the ultimate challenge. Has someone ever told you “so, what do you do?” This means we used too many words and we either lost attention or they got lost with too many details. The Abstract should be a clear standalone passage of your research. A brief rationale (e.g., while X and Y are essential to A and B, little is known) with the study aim, the overall methodological approach followed by the new information uncovered (trends, not every data obtained), and the conclusions – simply present the implications of the study findings.
The punchline is that if you do not comply with the most basic requirements, your manuscript will be rejected without review. Let’s be honest, it is not about the decoration we provide but the message we convey. So I hope these steps will help you reduce the word count in research papers.