Bad Abstracts

By Neuroskeptic | September 10, 2013 5:41 pm

In an ideal world, scientific papers wouldn’t have abstracts.

There’d be no need for them, because every ideal scientist would have the time to read every published paper in full, and a perfect memory for all of the details.

Sadly we don’t inhabit such a world, so abstracts are perhaps the most important part of a manuscript – certainly so, in proportion to the word count.

The bottom line is, if you as an author want citations for your paper, you need a good abstract. Yet abstracts often go wrong. In my opinion (and I read a lot of the things), an abstract should not contain…

Prologue. Many good abstracts begin in media res, describing the methods with no introduction at all. Alternatively, a concise intro can work, but this should be limited to explaining the question that the study set out to answer. A list of prior findings is not called for. A paper should start with a review of previous literature – but an abstract is not a paper, nor is it the beginning of one. It’s a whole art form in itself.

Footnotes. A paper’s abstract [1,2] just doesn’t need [3] these [4]. I think they generally end up there because of hasty copy-and-pasting from conference abstracts, where they’re common. Anyway, avoid doing this. But if you insist on having them, at least make sure the notes they refer to are included at the end of the abstract!

Promises: An abstract should make the reader want to see the full paper. It shouldn’t tell them to do so – rather an abstract should show readers how interesting the paper is, by being interesting itself. So avoid empty phrases like “Implications will be discussed…” or “Several results were observed…”. If a result is interesting, describe it; if not, don’t mention it.

Mistakes. You might get away with a few English language errors or typos in the main text, but you just can’t afford even one in the abstract. Anyone who notices it won’t bother to read (or cite) you; the rest of the paper could be perfect, but that’s no good, if no-one reads it. Oh, and make sure the statements in the abstract match the ones in the paper.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: media, papers, science, Uncategorized
  • Nitric-X

    Hm, it’s not quite fair to cite the given abstract for the footnotes, as technically, it’s not quite an abstract, but rather a response letter which is copy pasted in full as its own abstract…

    • Neuroskeptic

      OK, but that was a bad move (amongst other things because it led to dead footnotes).

      • Nitric-X

        Agreed 😉 – I also have never seen something like this…

  • Bee


  • petrossa

    Best of all shouldn’t contain political correct downplaying of unwilling to cooperate with consensus results

  • Bernard Carroll

    Some Abstracts just scream Propaganda, Promotion, and Preening. Here is the beginning of an example that just came up on the radar today. Comments interleaved. LOL.

    Importance: Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is one of the world’s most disabling illnesses according to the World Health Organization. [Duh.] Serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SRIs) are the only medications approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat OCD, [FDA approval is not a scientific standard.] but few patients achieve minimal symptoms from an SRI alone. In such cases, practice guidelines recommend adding antipsychotics or cognitive-behavioral therapy consisting of exposure and ritual prevention (EX/RP).

    Objective: To compare the effects of these 2 SRI augmentation strategies vs pill placebo for the first time, to our knowledge, [Press release is pending.] in adults with OCD.

    [The results actually are quite good and would carry the report without this kind of Puffery.]

    • Neuroskeptic

      Uggh… and JAMA Psychiatry seem to require such puffery now by making authors start with an “Importance” section…!

      • Bernard Carroll

        Oh, don’t get me going on JAMA Psychiatry. The past editors must be mortified.

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  • Becki Saltzman

    But without abstracts our delightful little confirmation bias jewels would have no place to shine. For those of us outside of academia, those abstracts are often all we get.

  • bookofjoe

    For a majority of scientists, abstracts are as far as their work will ever go in terms of seeing print. Let them have their brief, 150-word moment in the sun.

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Neuroskeptic is a British neuroscientist who takes a skeptical look at his own field, and beyond. His blog offers a look at the latest developments in neuroscience, psychiatry and psychology through a critical lens.


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