- Letter to the Editor
RE: GRAHAM HOWARD, 'PEER REVIEW AS BOUNDARY WORK,' JSP 43, 3 (APRIL 2012): 322-35
What is the purpose of the abstract of a research paper? I suggest that it is the second 'hook' that an author uses to capture a potential reader. The first hook is the title, which, if successful, will attract your attention on the contents page of the journal. It the title looks interesting or, at least, promising, the potential reader will turn to the beginning of the paper and read the abstract. A well-crafted abstract is thus a long supplement to the title, explaining the aims, observations and conclusions of the paper, as well as being a condensate of the principal features of the paper. If it fails to interest or excite, then a potential reader is lost.
In a recent Journal of Scholarly Publishing issue, I read an extraordinary abstract to a paper, which included aims and a conclusion but almost no observations to link the two. This resulted in an essentially uninformative, even monotonous, opening to the paper that failed to hook this reader (I read no further than the keywords). The abstract of this paper has six sentences and the following structure: '. . . is analysed. . . . are summarized and critiqued. . . . is given, and this account is also critiqued. . . . is given, and it is argued. . . . is given. . . . is introduced, and it is concluded. . . .' This is the classic teaser abstract, as I understand it, lacking solid information to interest the reader but instead awash with enough passive verbs to send him or her to sleep. It is little more than an expanded title. It is neither interesting nor does it communicate the essential features of the paper. It contains no more meat than a hard-boiled egg.
Landes1 defined the importance of the abstract of a research paper many years ago, but the message, sadly, failed to get through to everyone and, fifteen years later, he considered it necessary to present his arguments again.2 These two brief papers explain succinctly in language we can all understand (you don't have to be a petroleum geologist— I'm not) how to write, not blight, an abstract. In both of these papers, [End Page 105] Landes explains the importance of the abstract to a paper: 'In terms of market reached, the abstract is the most important part of the paper. For every individual who reads . . . your entire paper, from ten to five hundred will read the abstract' (emphasis in original). He emphasized that the abstract needs to include the essential information and qualities of the paper. Indeed, a well-crafted abstract will pack in as much specific information as it can in the available space.3 An abstract which does not do so is weak and at fault, not communicating with its audience, and, in the final analysis, failing to spread the observations and ideas of the author.
Stephen K. Donovan is a researcher in palaeontology at the NCB Naturalis, Leiden, the Netherlands. He is book review editor of Geological Journal.
1. Kenneth K. Landes, 'A Scrutiny of the Abstract,' Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists 35, 7 (July 1951): 1660
2. Kenneth K. Landes, 'A Scrutiny of the Abstract, II,' Bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists 50, 9 (September 1966): 1992
3. Paul D. Lowman Jr, 'The Abstract Rescrutinized,' Geology 16, 12 (December 1988): 1063 [End Page 106]