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. :-)

Provable vs true

Not long ago, one of the IT staff who was in my office to sort out access to the new network on campus asked me if my research often came into conflict with my faith. He was killing time waiting for some process or another to work through and making polite conversation. :-)

I said no, mainly because I ask different questions when I’m doing research. I posted on this a while ago, but would like to revisit it in the light of some thinking that I’ve been doing recently.

As a result of my work on memory and eyewitness testimony, I am more firmly convinced than ever that we are never going to be able to prove that we have access to the authentic words of Jesus. I don’t see that this actually matters a great deal from a faith perspective, although it should have a significant effect on how we do our exegesis.

I am a fan of detective stories and TV shows and as such am well aware of the importance of having an alibi for the time of a crime if you want to be removed from the list of suspects. I am also aware that there are significant portions of most of my days when I would not be able to provide an alibi if I were accused of a crime because my office is fairly isolated and once the door is shut to keep out the cold or the heat, no-one knows whether or not I’m there. Because I connect to the internet via my laptop, the fact that I’d sent and received emails wouldn’t prove my location, either, just that I was somewhere on campus, I think. The fact that I can’t prove that I was in my office doesn’t make it untrue, but whether or not people were prepared to believe me would depend on my track record for honesty in the past and they would take into account whether I had an obvious motive for committing the crime and for lying.

At home, if I say to my son “Did you use the last of the grated cheese and not put it on the shopping list?”, his reply is most likely to be “You can’t prove that!” And, of course, unless I or someone else was watching at the time, I can’t. If there was cheese in the fridge fifteen minutes before and he was the only one in the kitchen, it’s highly probable that he was the person responsible. If it’s been several days since I last saw cheese in the fridge, any member of the family except the puppy could have done it, but he is the most likely person because he uses the most grated cheese and is more prone than his sister to not put things on the shopping list. His father is also not so good at putting things on the list, but doesn’t use grated cheese except under extreme duress. I am not perfect about putting things on the list, either, but I would almost certainly remember having used the last of the cheese when I went to get some more. Also, my son usually only says “You can’t prove that!” if he’s responsible for the thing he’s telling me I can’t prove. I can therefore say that even though I can’t prove it, on the balance of probability it’s true.

I think that this is the best we can hope for in biblical studies (or any study of  historical events that took place before the advent of modern technology) – until such time as someone produces a machine capable of time travel and miniature recording devices that are not visible to those being observed, anyway. Furthermore, our assessments of the likely reliability of particular sources of information is fairly subjective, so we aren’t going to agree totally on what deserves the “balance of probability” vote.  The fact that I can’t prove something doesn’t mean that it isn’t true, though.