A manuscript that I recently reviewed had a truly awful abstract. I thought, based only on reading the abstract: There is no way that this is going to be a good or interesting paper.
And I was right, at least in this case.
There are also cases in which I have read the abstract of a paper and thought: This is going to be interesting. And then the rest of the paper was disappointing and/or ghastly.
If you've been following along, so far we have two cases: abstract bad --> paper bad; and abstract good --> paper bad. Certainly there are many cases of abstract good --> paper good, but what about abstract bad --> paper good? I think the latter might be the rarest of the 4 cases.
Papers and proposals might be different with respect to abstract/text quality correspondence. In the case of proposals, there have been proposals of which I was initially quite skeptical, but my opinion changed for the better as I delved into the proposal more. Being skeptical, however, is a bit different from thinking from the start "This is really bad/wrong/stupid". For the most part, I think a bad start = a bad document.
The fact that I have had an initial positive impression of a paper or proposal only to have my hopes dashed by the rest of the document indicates that my abstract impression is not immobile. The fact that my change of heart tends to go in the negative direction, however, could indicate that it is easier to change a positive impression to a negative one than to erase a negative impression.
Advice I was given in my younger days -- the same advice that I repeat to my students -- is that you need to grab a reader or reviewer of a paper or proposal at the very beginning if you want them to have a positive opinion of the entire document. I suppose it's the academic version of "You don't get a second chance to make a first impression."
No one deliberately makes a boring/bad start to an important document in the hopes that the reader will change their mind later once the paper or proposal gets better further along, though sometimes I wonder whether some authors resort to this strategy out of desperation.
But are the dire predictions of manuscript and proposal rejection owing to a bad or lame start accurate? Can a negative abstract impression be converted into a positive one or is this a rare and unlikely occurrence?
Perhaps a case in which this might happen is when an author clearly doesn't know how to write an abstract but has no such trouble writing the rest of the document. Typically, though, if someone doesn't know how to write an abstract, they don't know how to write a paper or proposal. The work might be good, but you either have to care only about the data (and not any other content of the paper) or you have to know a lot about the topic already and fill in the gaps yourself.
Papers like that do have some value. I have reviewed/read some in which I was really interested in the dataset but I thought the rest of the paper was worthless. Furthermore, I have had some of my own manuscripts get review comments like "I don't believe any of the interpretations but the rest of it will be useful to those of us who know what to do with data such as these".
Note: There are constructive ways to word a statement like that, but some reviewers seem unaware of this.
It would be useful to know if bad abstract = bad paper/proposal were an immutable law of the universe because it would save a lot of time for reviewers and other readers.
9 months ago