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Abstracts are supposed to be technical

January 29, 2009

I was browsing through the comments on this post at RealClimate and came across this comment:

One aspect I think you missed in determining what gets coverage – the abstract. If the abstract is too technical or describes results that a journalist cannot understand, they will not read the details. Only if the abstract has something stated in a way that the non-technical reader can understand and sees as newsworthy, will they pursue it further.

Absolutely. Positively. Wrong.

That is not what an abstract is for. Although I’ve complained about some press releases in the past (e.g., here and here), I read them essentially everyday and am more often than not satisfied with the information they provide. Press releases or other media releases are written without jargon and non-technical language — they are designed specifically for those without specific training (I put journalists in that category).

If scientists were to write abstracts like media releases, they would become useless to those in the field that want to know what the paper is about. Not the general topic of the paper … but what it is really about.

Just sayin’.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. maureenlynn permalink
    January 29, 2009 1:32 pm

    Hey there. I like your blog. It came up as one similar to my post the other day (although it’s not really- your stuff is way smarter sounding :)

    But I totally agree about the abstract thing. From the little I know with dabbling in journalism in college, and from writing a thesis and trying to get published, I’d say they are not even in the same category.

  2. February 5, 2009 8:37 am

    I like your blog, too! Regarding abstracts, I feel there is a middle ground. We must be aware of the general audience when writing the abstract, but also summarize the intro, methods, results, discussion. This is how it gets accepted in the first place.

    No point in dumbing everything down for journalists, though. Since when do they do research? My experience is that most journalists sit and wait for a press release to (literally) spell it out for them.
    The ambitious ones might do a little research using Google, but very few will ever read the original paper, unless perhaps they’re writing a book.

    If you’re catering to journalists, do a press release for Science Daily and Eurkealert. Most online news organizations will print the thing verbatim.

  3. February 5, 2009 8:43 am

    Peter … well said.

    In some cases, a more generalized abstract is appropriate … for a ‘review paper’ that aims to summarize and synthesize a lot of info, for example.

  4. 220mya permalink
    February 6, 2009 10:41 pm

    I completely agree with you Brian. But I also think we need to make a better effort to communicate effectively with journalists. Thats why I like it when some journals require a “plain-language summary” in addition to the technical abstract. See for example the papers in Palaeontologia Electronica

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