Sciency Words: Abstract

Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Sciency Words. Each week, we take a closer look at an interesting science or science-related term to help us expand our scientific vocabularies together. Today’s term is:

ABSTRACT

Abstract is kind of an abstract word. It can mean a lot of things to a lot of people. Among those many meanings, “to abstract” as a verb can mean to take specific information and turn it into more generalized—or rather, more abstract knowledge.

I believe this specific to generalization idea is behind the usage of abstract in scientific papers (as well as other kinds of academic literature). An abstract is the first section of a scientific paper. It takes all the specific information presented in the paper and generalizes it into a one-paragraph summary.

Icarus, a prestigious journal of planetary science, advises authors to include three things in their abstracts:

  • The purpose of their research
  • The principle results of their research
  • The major (i.e., generalized) conclusions we might draw from the research

Icarus also says: “An abstract is often presented separately from the article, so it must be able to stand alone.”

Some of you may have wondered why I didn’t mention abstracts in my recent post on how to read a scientific paper. That was an oversight on my part, but there’s a reason for that oversight. I think of abstracts as sort of like the back covers of books. By that I mean I read abstracts to figure out which papers might be worth reading in full.

But once I’ve found a paper I want to read, I don’t pay much further attention to the abstract. Why? Because like the back covers of books, abstracts really aren’t part of the “story” scientific papers are trying to tell. Also, I’ve been warned that abstracts can be oversimplified or misleading.

I recently found this article published by the Indian Journal of Psychiatry. It’s titled “How to write a good abstract for a scientific publication or conference presentation.” In the abstract of this article on abstracts, it says:

Well, that’s what it should have said. What it actually says is this:

Abstracts of scientific papers are sometimes poorly written, often lack important information, and occasionally convey a biased picture.

The article goes on to offer guidance, especially for younger researchers, on how to improve their abstracts. “Misleading readers,” the paper warns in its conclusions section, “could harm the cause of science […].”

Personally, I don’t hold it against scientists if their abstracts aren’t the best. Condensing all your research into one paragraph can’t be easy. The lesson here for people like me who are trying to read this stuff is to take abstracts with a grain of salt—just like the back covers of books.

Okay, next week we’ll stop talking about scientific papers and instead go visit a strange planet. Easily the strangest planet in the Solar System, perhaps in the whole universe. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it. It’s called Earth.

3 Responses to Sciency Words: Abstract

  1. I’ve often been warned about abstracts too, but the vast majority that I’ve read and checked have been an adequate summary of the paper. (Albeit sometimes at the cost of a long abstract.) In my experience, if the abstract is bad or misleading, the paper likely is too. If the abstract’s statements aren’t supported by the data, the paper’s conclusion and/or discussion section likely won’t be either.

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.S. Pailly says:

      Yeah, I can’t think of any examples of abstracts gone wrong, at least not that I’ve seen. The Indian Psychiatry Journal article cites an abstract that drew its conclusions based on what turns out later in the paper to be a very small sample size.

      But it sounds to me like the authors of that paper weren’t deliberately trying to conceal their sample size. It sounds to me like they were just trying to cut down the length of the abstract, and ended up cutting a few too many things.

      I think that sounds like a writing problem rather than a scientific competency problem. But maybe I’m being too generous.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The examples I’ve seen are when the abstract (and usually conclusions) are ideologically motivated. The example that comes to mind is a study of acupuncture whose claims of acupuncture’s efficacy aren’t back up by the actual presented data. (Unfortunately, there are a lot of these.)

        Like

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