Current findings from research on structured abstracts
By James Hartley, Ph.D., Research Professor
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The results from these studies suggest that, compared with traditional ones, structured abstracts:
However, there have been some qualifications. Structured abstracts:
Although these findings seem clear-cut there are some problems with the research in general that need to be taken into account. There are two main issues here. Firstly, but possibly not too important, is that many studies have used undergraduate students as participants. Such undergraduates, of course, do not have the experience of full-time academics and post-graduates in reading journal abstracts, and thus the requirements of the studies may be rather different for them. Secondly, and much more important, is that not all of the studies have compared actual, previously published, traditional and structured abstracts, thus reducing the validity of the comparisons.
For a study to be properly valid in this context one needs, in effect, to compare, from a particular journal, sets of published traditional abstracts with sets of (different/later) published structured abstracts. What has often happened in practice, however, is that either (i) the structured versions of published traditional abstracts have been written independently by the researchers for the studies in question (e.g., studies 1, 2, 11), or (ii) the published traditional abstracts have been shortened and simplified for experimental purposes, and then structured versions of these simplified versions have been written by the researchers (e.g., studies 13,14, 18). The main reason for this state of affairs stems from the fact that the researchers in question are often advocating the use of structured abstracts in a particular discipline where none (or very few) are available at the time of writing, and thus they have had to create their own. Such procedures do not destroy the validity of the findings, but they do limit their generality. To be properly valid the abstracts need to be written by the authors of the articles and not by the researchers.
If we apply these considerations to the findings listed above, then:
The literature reviewed in the first part of this paper suggests that structured abstracts are an improvement over traditional ones. However, as argued in the second part, the evidence used to support these claims is sometimes not as good as one might wish. In particular, we have to judge the applicability of the findings from this research to the 'real world'. Nonetheless, the explosion in the use of structured abstracts, particularly in the medical context, suggests that these judgements have already been made.
Some editors have complained that structured abstracts 'take up too much space'. Indeed, the data reviewed in this paper from the more valid studies suggest that the extra space required by introducing structured abstracts may be quite considerable. But we have to remember here that we are only talking about the extra line-space required by the abstract, and not the article as a whole. Indeed, setting a word limit (such as 200 words as in the JMLA) could control this amount. Whatever the case, introducing structured abstracts into a journal is unlikely to require changes in the overall pagination. There is often 'free' space at the ends of articles, and typesetters are skilled at fitting text to appropriate page dimensions . Such concerns, of course, do not arise with electronic journals and databases.
Some authors - and some editors too - have also complained that the formats for structured abstracts are too rigid, and that they present them with a straightjacket that is inappropriate for all journal articles. Undoubtedly this may be true in some circumstances but it is remarkable how in fact the sub-headings used in this present article can cover a variety of research styles. Bayley, Wallace and Bryce , for example, provide suggested sub-headings for quantitative studies, qualitative studies, case-reports, and reviews, all of which follow to some degree or other the basic format used here. Furthermore, if readers care to examine current practice [or Table 4 in 14], they will find that even though the sub-headings used in this article are typical, they are not always rigidly adhered to. Editors normally allow authors leeway in the sub-headings that they use.
Finally we might note that the research on structured abstracts is limited in two other ways. Firstly, it is not made clear in many studies whether or not the titles of the journal articles have been presented along with the abstracts, and clearly a title might help the reader to recall and possibly interpret the text under study . Secondly, in addition, no one to my knowledge has studied complete articles with either traditional or structured abstracts. Here, where the abstract plays a small, but nonetheless important role, it would be of interest to see if the format of the abstract affects the readers' judgements of the quality of an article (or even of a journal) as a whole.
Despite these limitations, and the ones discussed earlier, the conclusions of this review are that the data discussed above do support the claim that structured abstracts are an improvement over traditional ones. Not only is more information presented - which is helpful for the reader - but also the format requires that the authors organise and present their findings in a systematic way. Furthermore, this consistency is made more obvious by the typographical layout. Advances in 'text mining', 'research profiling', and computer-based document retrieval systems, can only profit from the use of these more informative abstracts.
I am grateful to the editor and three independent referees for helpful comments on an earlier version of this article which was originally published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association, 2004, 92, 3, 368-371.
Author's address for correspondence: James Hartley, B.A., Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Keele University, Staffordshire, ST5 5BG, United Kingdom; email, firstname.lastname@example.org