Wednesday, 11 January 2017

Writing informative abstracts for journal articles – Advice for authoring a PhD or academic book – Medium


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Writing informative abstracts for journal articles

Be substantive and communicate your key findings 

the abstracts for academic journal abstracts can be as frustrating as
trying to work out what their titles mean. In the same way that many
PhDers and academics carefully choose useless titles
for their papers or chapters, so it is common to find that journal
article abstracts actually say little about what the researcher has
will often contain a description of an earlier literature or research,
perhaps indicating previous difficulties or approaches in the sub-field.
Most abstracts also say something about what methods the authors have
used here. They normally suggest (sometimes in an oblique fashion) what
research question an article tackles. Often readers are told in an
obscure way that the approach used here differs in some respect from
previous work, or that the authors have tried to conceptualize an issue
or measure some phenomenon differently. To wrap up, the most ambitious
authors will sometimes make some form of credit claim about how their
analysis has achieved something, or added value in a tricky area.
rarely gets covered in all this are the actual key findings of the
article. Readers are normally left to guess what the researcher’s
‘bottom line’ conclusion or academic ‘value-added’ is, still less what
key ‘take-away points’ the author would ideally want readers to
remember. The final conclusions or key arguments made in the article
usually remain an enigma, shrouded in delicate veils of obscurity,
perhaps hinted at suggestively but discreetly, but never frankly set
out. This vagueness comes on top of the well-known general tendency for
the predominant message of journal articles to be that the world is
resistant to research, many problems are more complex than they look,
and consequently more research is needed.

Why are abstracts so uninformative?

are multiple reasons for this pattern of poor abstract-writing. First,
academics (especially early career researchers and PhDers) are often
diffident people, obsessed with the provenance of their work at the
expense of its substantive content. They want to prove that what they
did was legitimate work, far more than to think through what it really
means or demonstrate that it was valuable. Researchers are also often
risk averse, convinced that making any explicit or easily decipherable
summary claims about what you have found out could easily seem brash and
risky to reviewers. Far better to amplify only a little an obscure, or
purely formal, or conventional article title ,
using the abstract to give some more details of the ‘box’ that the work
falls into, without actually saying what the results were.
also tend to be rather casually written, perhaps at the beginning of
writing when authors don’t yet really know what they want to say, or
perhaps as a rushed afterthought just before submission to a journal or a
conference. Some academics actually seem to start writing their
abstract only after they have begun the online submission process, and
so just clutch at a few, random straws to fill up some of the wordspace
allotted to them. Others discover that their earlier or
conference-vintage abstract is over-long, and so have to edit it down on
the spot to fit within the journal’s precise word limit.
an abstract exists, authors are also often reluctant to reappraise
them, or to ask critically whether they give the best obtainable picture
of the work done and the findings achieved. Colleagues reading the
paper often skim past the abstract and rarely comment on it. And sadly
most reviewers and journal editors also give authors little useful
advice about how to improve an abstract that is dull, uninformative,
tangential or vague. Journal style sheets are normally silent about the
need for abstracts to be carefully written, substantive and informative.

The costs of poor abstracts

abstracts has very real costs, however. Typically you have between two
and five years for your article to attract the attention of other
researchers and to get cited. After that it’s basically burnt toast. And
of course, the wheels of academia often turn slow, so that your window
of opportunity is eroded at the start too, especially in the humanities
and ‘soft’ social sciences.
I have discussed elsewhere
how titles are very important for ‘selling’ your paper, for making it
interesting enough to potential readers that they go from a snippet view
in Google or another research database to looking at the whole
abstract. But once that hurdle is past, your abstract is then key in
persuading readers to go further, to actually download the paper, with
all the extra hassle that may be involved if their library has poor
electronic access, or to search out the paper via the library if their
university does not already subscribe to the journal.
abstract powerfully conditions these critical few seconds or minutes
you have in front of each potential readers’ eyes. Wasting this key
exposure time on describing earlier literature, woffling about your
methods, or obscurely or vaguely hinting at what your conclusions are is
a kind of academic suicide. The baffled reader moves on none the wiser
to the next batch of the 200 ‘possibles’ they will search through that

A checklist for improving abstracts

counteract these problems it can be useful to have a structured set of
questions to ask about your abstract, a list of things that you should
include, and some suggestions about how many words to devote to
different elements.
How long is your abstract in words? At at an early stage it should
always be between 175 words (minimum) and 300 words (maximum) depending
on the varying practices across disciplines. At a late stage, does it
fit in the word limit for your target journal (shown in the journal’s
stylesheet)? If not, edit it down so that it does, and count words
precisely. Does your abstract have paragraphs? [No more than 2]
How much information does the abstract give about the elements below? I
also suggest a maximum number of words for each component (assuming a
300 word abstract — reduce these numbers pro rata if your target journal
has a lower limit.)
  • Other people’s work and the focus of previous research literature? [None, A bit, A lot] Assign no more than 50 words
  • What is distinctive to your own theory position or intellectual approach?[None, A bit, A lot] Assign at least 40 words
  • Your methods or data sources/datasets? [None, A bit, A lot] Assign 40 words minimum to 120 maximum, depending on how methodologically innovative your work is.
  • Your bottom-line findings i.e. what ‘new facts’ have you found? Or what key conclusions you draw? [None, A bit, A lot]
    Assign as many words as possible within your limit. Be as substantive
    as possible. Don’t be vague, obscure, formal or conventional. Tell us
    clearly what you found out, not just what topic box you were studying in
  • The value-added or originality of your work within this field? [None, A bit, A lot] Assign at least 30 words. Make a moderate claim, motivate readers to learn more.
Does the abstract systematically follow the sequence of elements given
above? [good] Or does it have some other sequence? [bad] Is the
progression of ideas clear and connected?
4. How
many theme/theory words from the article title recur in the abstract?
Does the abstract introduce any new theme/theory words, that are not
present in the article title? Do the two sets of words fit closely
together? [good] or suggest different emphases? [bad]
Style points: How many words are wasted on ‘This article sets out to
prove..’ or ‘Section 2 shows that…’? Get rid of all such ‘blur’
elements. Is the description of your own research in the present tense?
[good] or the future tense?[bad]
Look carefully at the ‘ordinary language’ words in the title, and in
the abstract text. Are they ‘filler’ words only? In which case, are they
needed? If not, do they have a clear and precise meaning or implication
that you want your title and abstract to express? (Most ordinary
language words with substantive content will have multiple meanings).
Suppose that you have read on the Web (in a long list of other articles
and items) the article title and the first three lines of the abstract.
Are they informative? Do they make you want to download the full
article? What kind of academics elsewhere will be able to reference this
article usefully in their own work, from the information given in the
title and abstract alone?
8. Type the whole title (in double quotes “ ”) into Google Scholar and check against the questions below.
  • How many items show up? None [good]. Many [poor].
  • How
    do most of the other references or items that show up relate to your
    topic and subject matter? Very close [good]. Close [OK]. Remote [bad].
    Completely different topic [very bad]. Wrong discipline [very bad]
  • Does
    the search show that you are using terms, phrases or acronyms that -
    Have the same meaning as you are using? [good]. Or have a number of
    different meanings from your sense? [bad]
Now type the three or four most distinctive or memorable title or
abstract words separately into the search engine, and check against the
same questions.
  • How many items show up? None [bad]. Very few [bad]. Modest number [good] Lots and lots [bad] — it’s an inverted U curve here.
  • How
    do most of the other references or items that show up relate to your
    topic and subject matter? Very close [good]. Close [OK]. Remote [bad].
    Completely different topic [very bad]. Wrong discipline [very bad]
  • Does
    the search show that you are using terms, phrases or acronyms
    that — Have the same meaning as you are using? [good]. — Or have a
    number of different meanings from your sense? [bad] Article titles need
    to be less distinctive than books or theses, or chapters in these longer
    works. It is fine for your title and abstract to have some of the key
    words used by other authors, but preferably in some distinctive
    combination with other (ordinary language) words.
How does your abstract (and article title) sit within the journal title
itself, which often gives readers many clues to what the work is about?
Are you wasting words in the abstract explaining things that the
journal title already makes clear?


is a menu of suggestions and so it will always need adapting to your
particular discipline, topic and circumstances. Pick and choose among
the advice here. Use what works but don’t worry about what seems less
relevant — just as in a restaurant you don’t eat everything on the menu.
with all checklists or guidelines, remember too that academia works
best when researchers are inventive. Consider, for instance, the article
by M.V. Berry and colleagues in the Journal of Physics A: Mathematical and Theoretical
(2011) entitled: ‘ Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be
explained as a quantum weak measurement?’ Their abstract was two words
long: ‘Probably not’.

put these ideas in a wider context, readers at PhD or higher level
might find it helpful to read parts of my book: Patrick Dunleavy, ‘
Authoring a PhD’ (Palgrave, 2003). See also useful material on the LSE’s Impact blog and on Twitter: @Write4Research.

Writing informative abstracts for journal articles – Advice for authoring a PhD or academic book – Medium

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