Wednesday, January 18, 2012

In the abstract

Over the past several years, for my upper level courses I've developed an assignment requiring students to engage the scholarly literature. As I will in this afternoon's lecture, I spend a good amount of time explaining how to use abstracts to quickly determine the hypothesis, methods, and conclusion of academic articles--I put them up on a screen and we sort them out. This is especially important and useful when utilizing the online library databases, which provide lists of abstracts for any given search. The upshot here is that researchers should be able to use abstracts as a way to determine very quickly whether a given article would be of use. As scholars, we all write them, and we all use them.

So why are so many abstracts so poorly done?

In this indictment I include my own, or at least some of them. It occurred to me that I was never taught how to make one. When a journal or conference needed an abstract, I spent 2-3 minutes copying and pasting until I had about 100 words that conveyed the basic idea of the paper. Now as I try to teach undergraduates how to use them, I can see very clearly that all too few even state the hypothesis/main argument. They can often even be vague about conclusions. So many abstracts say something like "the effects of immigration are assessed" in the passive voice without explaining what the conclusions are.

All abstracts should state the main argument front and center, then the basic data/methods used, and the conclusion(s). Not only do you not need a lot of detail, you should avoid it. I've read abstracts that are something like 200 words, or two dense paragraphs. A Google search reveals many university links about how to write abstracts (such as my alma mater) advocating for 200 word abstracts, but that is not the norm for articles and in my opinion is too long. American Political Science Review, for example, limits them to 150 words.

That's my rant for the day, and an example of how teaching contributes to my own work.


Lillie Langtry 10:53 AM  

In the past, I've had trouble convincing people that their conclusion belonged in the abstract. I think there was a feeling of disappointment that they were "giving away" their article and that readers then might simply not bother to read it. Well, I can kind of understand that... but at the end of the day, an academic article is not a crime novel.

Greg Weeks 11:02 AM  

That's funny to think of it as a crime novel.

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