Archive for September, 2009
A good scientific abstract not only needs to contain all the right pieces (background, problem statement, main findings, etc.), but it should also flow smoothly and seamlessly from one sentence and idea to the next. The value of this should not be underestimated, especially when you reflect on how quickly and impatiently most readers will be scanning your abstract.
So, how can flow be achieved? In this slide show (pdf), I offer some thoughts for creating it, along with some examples that illustrate these points.
I was looking the other day for some “how to” advice on grant writing that goes beyond the basics, and found an excellent set of articles called “How Not to Kill a Grant Application” on Science magazine’s Careers website. Basically, the author interviewed several experienced grant writers and reviewers about the common mistakes they see in grant proposals and how to avoid them — problems like incomplete abstracts, prose that’s too detailed or jargon-laden, and poorly worded research aims. I’d say it’s really useful stuff, especially for those grappling with the daunting task of writing their first proposal.
I don’t know if anyone else has run across this, but the journal PLoS Computational Biology has an ongoing series on their website called “Ten Simple Rules” that I think is pretty nifty. In the words of the editor, the collection provides “a quick, concentrated guide for mastering some of the professional challenges research scientists face in their careers,” such as how to collaborate successfully with others, how to choose a postdoc position, and how to organize a scientific meeting.
It also covers some writing topics:
Ten Simple Rules for Getting Published (Rule 1: Read many papers, and learn from both the good and the bad work of others)
Ten Simple Rules for Getting Grants (Rule 6: Remember, Reviewers Are People, Too — i.e., they’re short on time and likely aren’t expert in your exact discipline)
Ten Simple Rules for Reviewers (Rule 3: Write Reviews You Would Be Satisfied with as an Author)
Check out the entire series here.
Your abstract isn’t just a mini-version of your paper, with sentences chopped from your introduction, methods, results and discussion, and pasted together. Instead, it needs to be greater than the sum of those parts, an argument that compels people to read your paper, attend your talk, or visit your poster. Easier said than done, right? Here are a few tips to guide you in writing an informative and compelling abstract.
State the problem. If readers don’t grasp the problem, they’re not going to care about the solution (i.e., your research) or get the significance of what you’ve found. So, the beginning of the abstract should contain the research problem, along with just enough background for readers to understand why it is an “intricate unsettled question,” a “source of perplexity.” Your findings should then be presented as a solution to the problem.
Have a main point. Although the style of writing is different, the abstract is sort of like a brief news item on your research, and news stories always have a main point. So, rather than trying to squeeze in as many findings as possible, write a few bullet points or “sound bites” about your most important data, and then shape the abstract around them. This can be a good thing to do even before you start writing your paper, as it can help you find your overall focus.
Target a broad audience. In my opinion, the abstract should be aimed at a wider audience than the paper itself, because you never know who’s going to pull up your abstract in online and database searches. Thus, it should contain few, if any, jargon terms or acronyms, and include adequate background information for scientists outside your field (this becomes more important, of course, when you’re publishing in widely read journals, such as PNAS). Having a main point will also help capture the attention of a broader audience.
Say what you found, not what you did. Statements about methods (we did this) can almost always be rephrased as statements about findings (we found this). It’s always more interesting to hear about results than methods, plus you’ll save on words.
Be explicit about the significance of the research. If you want to compel people to read your paper, don’t make them guess what your data mean. I think good abstracts always include a statement at the end about the significance of the work, the more specific the better.
Eliminate writing errors. When people are skimming text very quickly – as they are, of course, with abstracts – they tend to be even less patient than usual with writing errors and clunky, hard-to-decipher prose. So, make every effort to use good grammar, proper sentence structure and so on. Your abstract should carry readers along like a gently winding path. Making them hack through thickets of prose, on the other hand, will discourage them from taking the longer journey (i.e., reading your paper).
To summarize. To write an informative and interesting abstract: 1) State the problem; 2) Present your key findings (i.e., the main point), answering as you do how they address the problem; 3) State the overall significance of the research; 4) Provide background as needed, and make your writing as clear and accessible as possible.