Blog de Comunicación Académica

Técnicas de comunicación académica en español e inglés como lenguas extranjeras


Writing the abridged abstract: telling a research story in under 50 words

If it is hard to give an adequate explanation of our research in a normal abstract, then it is even more challenging to write an “abridged abstract” or “brief blurb” of the kind that is increasingly being used by publishers and conference organisers. Many journals now require authors to submit a short summary or blurb for their article, which will be used to accompany the article’s title on a webpage, or to generate a short feed that they can send out to subscribers. For example, the PLOS (Public Library of Science) suite of journals asks authors for a blurb of no more than 30 words to go on the contents page of their online journals. Along similar lines, conference organisers are asking for increasingly succinct abstracts, so that the programme does not expand beyond reasonable limits – many large congresses in the USA now ask delegates to submit a 50-word abstract for their papers.

So how can we compress countless hours of research and reflection into 30-50 words? Two useful pieces of advice come from the PLOS suite itself, which suggests that the abstract “should, without exaggeration, entice people to read your manuscript”. In other words, think of one reason why your research is important/reliable/innovative, and make sure that you highlight this feature. If you look at the following example, you will observe that it highlights the importance of the problem that is being addressed by identifying it as “a serious threat”:

  1. Rabies has been a serious public health threat in Flores Island, Indonesia since it was introduced in 1997. The objective of this paper is to identify risk factors associated with the uptake of rabies control measures by individual dog owners in Flores Island. (43 words)

The second example, below, illustrates a different way to promote one’s own research:

  1. Despite the common belief that sensory stimuli matter, little research has explored how such specific shapes can affect consumers’ evaluations of brand extension fit. Using experiments, this research shows that specific geometric shapes can affect consumer perceptions for dissimilar brand extensions. (42 words)

 

In this case, the writer has chosen to emphasize the “research gap”, and to show how his/her research supplies new knowledge about a neglected area.

Another piece of advice provided by PLOS is that the “blurb” should not be redundant with the title. That means that you should consider how the abstract and the title complement each other. For example, your blurb might be:

  1. Serological data and mathematical modelling reveal key aspects of the human immune system’s response to seasonal influenza infection. (19 words)

 

In this case, it would make no sense to use a title like “Modelling the immune response to seasonal influenza”, because this just repeats the information given in the blurb. The author of this blurb actually decided to choose a more eye-catching title for the article: “Learning about influenza from the mark it leaves behind”.

Finally, another idea that might be useful is to consider what important parts of the article you want to mention. Researchers have found that when writing abridged abstracts, researchers are likely to try to include the Purpose, Method and Results of their study (Sancho Guinda, 2014). The following example manages to combine elements of all three of these:

  1. This study explores the message strategies employed by advertisers for children’s products in US children’s magazines, using Taylor’s six-segment strategy wheel as its theoretical framework. We examined 531 ads from three different children’s magazines published in 2010-12. Content analysis reveals that advertisers use more transformational approaches than informational approaches. (50 words)

 

However, this is a challenge, and it might be more practical to focus specifically on the results, as this author did:

  1. Five studies, using real consumption and taste rating as dependent measures, show that preschoolers (3-5.5 years old) infer that food that is instrumental to achieving health or intellectual goals is less tasty, and therefore they consume less of it, compared to presenting the food with a neutral or taste frame. (50 words)

 

One last idea is that in the pressure to compress information, we should not forget to “advertise” our research. The following values are thought to make a piece of research more “marketable”: importance, effectiveness, newness, breadth of scope, applicability and reliability. By adding just one adjective to our abstract, we can make it sound more attractive and interesting to potential readers. An “innovative project” sounds more exciting than a “project”, and a “robust design” seems more trustworthy than a “design”.

 

For further information and examples, see:

Sancho Guinda, C. 2014. Abridged abstracts: Rushing the research race? Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 69, 15-34

 

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How to write the “highlights” for a research paper

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:

http://www.elsevier.com/journal-authors/highlights