For most journals, abstracts began to appear early in the 20th century and became popular shortly after World War II. As scientific reports became more structured and disciplined, the abstract followed suit, evolving from a simple narrative snippet to a longer, structured editorial section with headings all its own. While studies of abstracts often show some of the flaws of abstracts (more on that later), structured abstracts became longer than their predecessors, often by a significant amount.
For many journals, the abstract is the only section of a scientific article that has a heading as definitive as “Conclusions.”
The abstract was introduced as a convenience for the busy reader, an accommodation to battle information overload during an information age that in retrospect seems almost quaint.
The abstract was a nice embellishment of print, designed for the print reader. It wasn’t created because there was an existential crisis facing research publishing in print. It wasn’t created in anticipation of large-scale electronic databases. It was a nice editorial invention that proved popular with readers and was easily replicated.
Once abstracts came into being, mimicry and craft finished the job of installing it as a “given” in scientific research articles.
Abstracts have provided exactly what their creators and purveyors hoped — a short, digestible, representative version of a research article. While there are known limitations and problems with abstracts (e.g., attempts to “game” the abstract by making it more positive than the full article, the difficulties of fully representing the nuances of a full report, and selective representation of favorable data), abstracts are generally perceived as useful and desirable.
The International Committee of Medical Journal Editors (ICMJE) endorses the use of structured abstracts. Their rationale has two tenets, only one of which is still true:
Because abstracts are the only substantive portion of the article indexed in many electronic databases, and the only portion many readers read, authors need to be careful that they accurately reflect the content of the article.
Abstracts are no longer “the only substantive portion of the article indexed in many electronic databases.” Google, the main search engine used by many scholars these days, indexes the full-text of most journals. And that’s just the world’s most popular search engine. In addition, many fields have large-scale databases of millions of abstracts. Some of the resulting businesses — PsychINFO, ProQuest/CSA, and others — are quite large.
There is no denying the ICMJE’s statement that abstracts may be “the only portion many readers read.” In fact, abstracts have frequently been accused of being a little too useful, with complaints coming from editorial offices that authors cite articles purely based on the contents of the abstract; repeated findings that readers simply scan abstracts as a substitute for reading the article instead of using abstracts as the appetizer and entry point; and full-on businesses being established by harvesting abstracts — which are copyrighted in some cases — and creating databases of these summaries., this often sufficing as a review of the literature. As information overload has increased, as the time and energy available for literature review has decreased, and as each generation has become more attenuated to the utility and substitution value of abstracts, reliance on the abstract has increased.
Even with all of this, little has changed in how editors create or publisher purvey abstracts.
Now, perhaps new factors in the presentation of scientific information may merit reconsideration of the abstract’s role, especially in online databases.
The extent to which journal readers browse abstracts in PubMed or a similar database has made these familiar summaries a level of the literature for themselves. Tensions exist, however. Publishers are being increasingly judged by value calculations based on the usage they drive to their core properties. Whether it’s institutions measuring cost-per-download or advertisers measuring cost-per-impression, there are growing pressures to bring readers directly to your core journal site.
As these demands for usage-based value metrics increase, promulgating abstracts thoughtlessly may be something to reconsider. In fact, given the clarity of our article titles and other potential summarizing approaches (such as a return to brief, narrative descriptions of the hypothesis without divulging the results), is there really a need these days to save someone one click to the abstracts on our own sites?
For open access publishers, the risk of abstracts keeping readers away is similar — after all, what does it matter to the user if an article is made available at no cost when the user is satisfied by an online abstract via another source like PubMed? At the same time, open access publishers are building article usage, commenting, and other services that depend on users visiting their sites. The syndicated abstract is creating just as much of a distraction for them in this age of information snacking as it is for subscription publishers.
Some publishers are experimenting with the way they summarize articles. The Lancet has a separate summary, PLoS has synopses, and various journals have “take home message” boxes of one sort or another. But the abstract remains a mainstay of syndicated value.
The abstract tends to be taken for granted by publishers at the same time they are appreciated by readers and exploited by services. This disjunction of value is hard to fathom, especially today. Why are abstracts — arguably the most distilled, useful, structurally predictable, and desirable editorial feature of scientific articles — given away freely in an online, data-driven content economy in which usage is becoming the measure of value?
Providing the abstract freely to anyone who wants to use it has become a habit, probably a leftover of our print and “information scarcity” mindset — with this mindset, it seems harmless to promulgate abstracts as widely as possible, and doing so seems like a way to battle scarcity. But in a networked and “information abundance” world, is carelessly syndicating a valuable substitute for articles a habit we need to sustain? And how long can we afford to continue it?