One of the most recent innovations in academic publishing is the “highlights” section, which often appears immediately after the article’s title in online journals. Some authors may wonder why they now have to produce a “highlights” section as well as an abstract, and how they should go about writing it.
In fact, this is a very new development. Elsevier journals started inserting highlights sections around 2010 and gradually phased this feature in across their whole range. Since Elsevier is the largest publisher of scientific journals, currently running around 3000 titles, its decision to introduce highlights has had a major impact on the sector as a whole. Now that the “highlights” sections are mandatory, Elsevier has now moved on to the second stage of what is evidently a long-term plan: in January 2014 Elsevier launched a “Research Highlights app” which is designed to make it easy to consult research papers on a smartphone – something that would not be possible if information were not available in the condensed, schematic format provided by the title and “highlights”.
So what exactly should the “highlights” section contain? Since this is a new genre, there is a certain amount of confusion among authors, and a high degree of variation can be observed between the “highlights” sections of different journals and papers, which range from lists of keywords displayed with bullet points, to detailed and complex accounts of results. According to the official Elsevier authors’ website, highlights are “a short collection of bullet points that convey the core findings” and provide researchers with a quick overview of the article in text form. Moreover, according to the same authors’ website, highlights should “describe the essence of the research (e.g. results or conclusions) and highlight what is distinctive about it”. Yet a cursory glance at the examples provided on the authors’ website is enough to tell us that this is not the whole truth. In fact, the examples provided by the publisher itself seem to suggest that the highlights can best be understood as a highly condensed abstract foregrounding the design of the study, on the one hand, and the results, on the other.
In particular, two features of the examples recommended by Elsevier should be noted. First, in these examples, the first one or two sentences in the “highlights” are used to orientate the reader as to the nature of the study, while the rest are a summary of the main results. Second, even though the characteristic format of the “highlights” section is the use of bullet points, in Elsevier’s examples the highlights themselves are expressed in full sentences, rather than making use of the more schematic style permitted in English when using bullet points. Taken together, these features suggest that when writing highlights, it is best to think of them as a kind of short abstract, than as either a summary of results or a list of points.
Perhaps the best advice is to allow yourself to be guided by the comment made by one researcher who found that the highlights were “quick to read and gave me a flavour of the research without giving me too much to sift through”. The aim of the “highlights” section is that researchers who glance at their mobile phone in search of information should able to read something comprehensible on a field they know little about. So you should start with a sentence that orientates the reader as to the nature of the study. Then move on to explain your most interesting findings in simple terms. Finish with a sentence that summarizes what your study contributes to the field. The language should be clear, concise and to the point, and you should use full sentences
For examples, see: