Teppo Felin at orgtheory.net has drawn attention to Isaac Waisberg's interesting observations about the increasing length of journal articles in the American Journal of Sociology and, in a follow-up post, the Administrative Science Quarterly. Note that the length of articles increases steadily from the 1960s, which correlates with the increasingly "postmodern conditions" of research in the social sciences.
In the comments to Teppo's post, it has been suggested that longer articles suggest less consensus among researchers. This seems plausible to me. With less shared assumptions, articles must explain a greater number of concepts and argue for their relevance and validity. Also, more work must be done to situate an article in relation to past and ongoing work in a field, with which the reader cannot be assumed to be familiar. Commenter Cristobal puts it as follows:
Long winded articles must have something to do with the lack of consensus / cohesion of scholarly inquiry. Most papers require extensive explanation as to why the subject/question is interesting. In disciplines like psychology, economics, medicine, etc, the papers are in the form (1) “I’m testing theory X (you all know what that is, so enough said)”; (2) “here’s my data”; (3) “here’s the findings”. In sociology, the sprawling search for ‘novelty’ leads to longer and longer papers. In other disciplines, more intensive focus on main questions leads to papers that are short and to the point.
An alternative explanation, which has also been offered, is that longer articles reflect the increasing specialization of researchers. A third explanation might emphasize the rise of qualitative research, which uses data that is much more difficult summarize. Articles in ASJ and ASQ may offer empirically "richer" prose today than they did in the 1950s.
Next week, I'm going to have a look at some articles in ASQ from the fifties and the naughties.