Abstracts – a few of my pet peeves

I have been very quiet in the blogosphere lately because I have been trying to write some more of my thesis and have been doing several casual jobs, one of which has been to update a bibliography. I have therefore read heaps and heaps of abstracts and not a few journal articles without abstracts and have formed some very definite opinions about them. Lots of my reading has been in the form of on-line proceedings from conferences, which are up quite fast, but without the benefit of careful editing. It shows. But then abstracts from peer reviewed, edited journals can be a bit dodgy, too.

Abstracts are the first things that people read, so you need to create the impression that it is going to be worth their while reading on, or attending the your presentation. Maybe this is subjective, but here are a few of the things I really hate:

  1. Long, rambling abstracts with a two paragraph literature review before I get to the info about the paper. I will almost certainly choose someone else’s conference presentation and may well not bother reading the journal article either, unless the topic really, really interests me and the other papers on at that time are totally uninspiring. Or I might chose to have coffee instead.
  2. Abstracts that don’t give me at least some idea of the conclusions that are going to be presented. Conference papers and journal articles aren’t like detective fiction – telling me the conclusions up front really won’t spoil the surprise or stop me wanting to know how the author justifies them. What I want to know is if the topic is of interest to me or relevant to my research and whether the conclusions are going to add anything I don’t already know, help me to make a decision about some contraversial issue or provide extra evidence for something I want to prove or disprove.
  3. Overselling the significance of the results/conclusions. I may attend the session or read the paper, but I won’t necessarily finish with a high opinion of the scholarship if I discover that the so-called “proof” is merely the first step in a long process.
  4. Abstracts that don’t give a reasonable overview of the material covered. My boss wrote off a whole set of conference proceedings that turned out to be an absolute gold mine because the authors’ abstracts were so uninformative. My keyword search pulled up enough hits to make me willing to give them a second chance but I’ve had to write new abstracts for the annotated bibliography I’m producing for all but one of about 20 relevant papers from the proceedings. Often I can simply reproduce the abstract and add a couple of notes highlighting particular items of interest for our project.

In the publish-and-be-cited-or-else world of international academia at the moment, a poor abstract is, I think, a not very good idea. :-)

And while I’m at it, two other pet peeves about articles in general:

  1. Poor opening and closing paragraphs, especially in journals that don’t offer abstracts. My library doesn’t subscribe to paper versions of many journals in my field so I am not sitting in a comfy chair in the browsing area of the library. I am looking at the on-line version to decide wether or not I am going to bother downloading the whole thing to read or plough through it on-screen. I need to be convinced pretty quickly and the opening and closing paragraphs will do it. Or not. Note to self – really work hard on those conclusions you find so hard to write.
  2. Clever catchy titles that give me no hint about the content of the paper. Sometimes I’ll be intrigued enough to look at the first paragraph, especially if it’s in a themed edition, but often I just won’t bother unless I’m really desperate. I mean does “If we build it will they come and more importantly will they stay” sound to you like a paper evaluating the positive and negative aspects of using e-portfolios in medical and nursing education (exactly what I wanted)?

Now, having got that off my chest, back to biblical studies. :-)

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2 thoughts on “Abstracts – a few of my pet peeves

  1. Well said Judy; abstracts are like gateways to the paper. An well written abstract should be brief and concise, but should be able to convey the problem and clearly present an overview of the conclusions inferred from the investigation. Simply by reading through the abstract, the readers must be able to decide whether the paper is relevant for them or not. Sometimes it is better to get your abstract read by professional expert editors and proofreaders for better result

  2. I like the part about having the option to have coffee. I chuckled at the “publish-and-be-cited-or-else world of international academia at the moment” phrase. ‘At the moment?’ This is the permanent state of the profession. The only ameliorating factor is tenure.

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