Monday, August 24, 2009

Abstract Impressionism

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.


Kevin said...

An abstract is not "the start of a document". It is a short summary of the entire document, and is all that most readers ever see of a paper. A bad abstract may not mean a bad paper, but it does mean a paper that will never be read.

Kevin said...

Incidentally, I routinely get more requests to review papers than I have time for. If the abstract is bad, I generally refuse to review the paper, because it takes so much longer to write up a review of a bad paper, and I've never seen a good paper with a bad abstract (except some early-draft student papers).

small college science prof said...

When I write papers, one thing I have a hard time with is what to put in the abstract, what to put in the introduction (i.e., the opening of the article proper), and what to repeat in both. What is supposed to be the distinction between an abstract and an introduction?

Anonymous said...

Oh boy. I just got revisions back on a ms in which both reviewers loved the paper and hated the abstract. And the abstract did suck. I don't know what I was thinking, if I was thinking, when I wrote that.

steph said...

I like the title of your blog post.

Mickey Schafer said...

My understanding of an abstract is that it has two functions: 1) it helps get the paper categorized into the proper place; 2) it serves a filtering function for readers. A good abstract should cover both, but I think the second may be the more important -- helping the reader to know whether your article is one that they need to read (or read part of). The abstract needs to indicate what question/s the paper is answering and what was significant about the findings (along with the usual methods/results stuff). Often, these 2 pieces of info are left out (I get very frustrated by vague statements such as "results contribute to the literature on X".) Some journals extremely short word counts for abstract also contribute to the problem. Introductions are different in that they do not need to cover the "whole" project, but instead should focus on the motivating questions, the relevant literature, and the "gap" or conflict that the research answers. I teach students (undergrads) a 5 step process for intros: 1) topic statement + significance (practical, clinical or research); 2) focused lit review; 3) gap statement (lit review leads to this); 4) significance to field (narrow/ specific significance as opposed to wider significance of first sentence); 5) research question/s (+hypotheses and/or results preview, depending on discipline).

John V said...

abstract can be

1. bad because of horrific writing style


2. bad from failure to summarize findings, how they were obtained, and why we should care.

I think the former should be avoided in reviewing because too much work is required, even though the research is sometimes very good, unless one considers oneself a grammarian rather than a scientist.

The latter is even less promising, but still some ill-conceived abstracts front for good work.

From personal experience, bad abstracts from people with a good reputation are sometimes worth looking past. Bad abstracts from unfamiliar people rarely justify further reading.

Kevin said...

"What is supposed to be the distinction between an abstract and an introduction?"

An abstract is not part of the paper, but a separate, very short replacement for the paper. There should be *nothing* in the abstract that is not part of the paper. The abstract should contain all the take-home messages of the paper.

The best way to generate an abstract is to write the complete paper (without an abstract), then write an abstract that summarizes what you want people to remember from the paper.

Anonymous said...

I just refereed a good paper with a bad abstract.
Fortunately(?) it was for a journal whose editor delights in rewriting abstracts for authors, and for the first time I actively suggested the editor do this.

Alex said...

I just went back to check the worst paper I ever reviewed. The abstract actually gave only a very slight hint of how horrible it would turn out to be. It definitely needed some grammatical corrections, and it was more detailed than you'd normally see, but the rest of the paper was several orders of magnitude worse.

EliRabett said...

I use the following method. First I think about what I want the reader to get from the paper. Then I summarize it in the abstract. Then I write the paper. Then I read the paper. Then I go back and re-write the abstract

Ms.PhD said...

I think my paper writing skills are still better than my abstract writing skills.

I feel like the abstract is almost like a poem- every word choice carries about 100x more weight than it does in the paper. Every little nuance counts. It can be a total quagmire.

Plus, some people put a lot of stock in making sure the abstract contains relevant keywords, which can be hard when you don't have space to define them sufficiently (if you're writing for a journal with a broader audience than just specialists in your field).

I tend to struggle with how much background I can fit into the abstract to make it understandable why all my nifty results are so nifty- and not go over the word limit.

I have definitely seen more examples of papers with good-sounding abstracts that vastly overstated the results actually provided in support of the claims. So I don't put much stock in abstracts at all. I tend to view them more as a sort of wishlist. As in, yeah you WISH you could say you actually showed that (but you didn't! Not even close!).

I think there's wayyyy too much weight placed on abstracts and NAMES (John V, I'm talking to YOU and your BIASES for your FAMOUS FRIENDS).

I actually heard a story recently about a PI who criticized a paper and said "That's how women write" (the first author was female). WTF?? And here everyone was telling me the reports about first-name bias in publishing were bogus. Apparently not!

Someday we will migrate away from this format and place more weight where it belongs- ON THE DATA.

At least, I can only hope.

Anonymous said...

I have the same experience, and a different explanation for it. I *HATE* recommending do not publish, as I imagine every paper representing months or years of hard work and dedication. The abstract is usually not enough to convince me the paper is beyond help. However, about two thirds of the time, I'm cringing by the time that I reach the discussion... It could just be that you are such an optimist that it takes sustained suckiness to turn you against the entire paper.