Use and abuse of abstracts.
Article Type: Editorial
Subject: Abstracts (Usage)
Author: Wilson, Denise
Pub Date: 07/01/2011
Publication: Name: Nursing Praxis in New Zealand Publisher: Nursing Praxis in New Zealand Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Health care industry Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2011 Nursing Praxis in New Zealand ISSN: 0112-7438
Issue: Date: July, 2011 Source Volume: 27 Source Issue: 2
Geographic: Geographic Scope: New Zealand Geographic Code: 8NEWZ New Zealand
Accession Number: 276901001
Full Text: Undoubtedly when faced with a multitude of references resulting from a literature search then abstracts are valuable for sorting out what is useful to retain for further review. However recently the way in which abstracts are used was the subject of an online discussion of INANE (the organisation representing editors of nursing journals). It appears that some authors submit for publication manuscripts in which they cite authors on the strength of the abstract alone, without having read the full article. Some participants also noted that this practice was not unusual among students. Having peer-reviewed many manuscripts and examined Master's and Doctoral theses I have noted that abstracts can be weakly constructed, and at best may only convey highlights of the article or thesis they represent. The potential for over-reliance on abstracts, given their deficits and limitations, has prompted this review of the uses and misuse of abstracts in the context of publication.

Abstracts are freely available, unlike many journal articles, and provide access to a plethora of literature (Anderson, 2011) that disseminates research findings and scholarly debate across a wide range of topics. It is generally a requirement for authors submitting articles for publication to provide a structured summary of the article, although the recommended length and content varies from journal to journal. In addition to attracting readers for the article abstracts serve several other purposes for both author and reader. Belcher (2009) promotes the writing of abstracts to assist authors in clarifying important ideas and, in the case of research to identify key findings, all of which can assist the author in revising the manuscript. Abstracts also provide opportunity for authors to connect with potential readers and engage with this audience about the content of the article.

While an abstract needs to stand alone as a coherent piece of work it must also align with and reflect the larger work it represents (Harbourt. Knecht & Humphreys, 1995; Zeiger, 2000). As already noted, abstracts allow readers access to a relatively quick review of a large number of articles. This access, together with the coherence of an abstract, is important for the reader to discern the likely relevance of an article to their particular area of interest--a key advantage enabling readers to have speedy, cursory examination of what should be an over-view of the article. The abstract provides a preview of the main story, highlighting essential details and information.

However, reliance on an abstract without reading the entire article creates risks for the quality and integrity of both the original work, and the work in progress. Authors, especially when tempted to cite an article only on the basis of an abstract, need to be aware that abstracts come with limitations and deficits. While structured abstracts are designed to provide readers such as clinicians, with relevant new information, or the methods used in research, the quality and usefulness of these documents is an area needing further research (Harbourt et al., 1995). Research with respect to consistency between abstract and the body of the article found that between 18%--68% of abstracts were inconsistent with the full article (Pitkin, Branagan, & Burmeister, 2000). Winker (1998) expands on the problem:

Reading an abstract has never been a substitute for reading the article: crucial details of the study... receive short shrift [sic] in the terse style of the abstract. A simple and straight forward abstract may obscure a more complex (and realistic) story within the text (p. 1129).

The risks to the quality and integrity of a manuscript relate to misrepresenting the author being cited, ignoring the context of a piece of work (information that cannot usually be included in a summary), and not considering the key findings (contained within an abstract) within the broader findings of the research. The result may be a piece of scholarly work based on misinterpretation. Additionally, the quality of an article cannot be assessed by the abstract alone as this lacks the nuances evident in the full article. The full story with all its detail must be considered in order to comprehensively ascertain the quality of an article.

Primarily it is the author's responsibility to ensure the accuracy and quality of their work prior to submitting a manuscript for publication. Those who choose to rely on abstracts alone risk presenting a weak, superficial and possibly erroneous piece of work. It is not until the full article is read that the utility of an abstract can be fully appreciated. Taking account of the abstract only is similar to the practice of reliance on the use of secondary sources-which at best are interpretations of another's work. The accuracy of a secondary source can only be determined by reviewing the primary source. While peer-review and editorial processes review the quality of manuscripts, unless those involved are familiar with the work cited the potential exists for the misuse of abstracts to go undetected. At the end of the day, once a manuscript is published it is forever subject to the scrutiny of others to whom authors are accountable for the quality of the work.

A simple answer to this issue would be to cease using abstracts; but the likelihood of this is slim in an age where there is a massive amount of literature available to readers. Undoubtedly, provided both potential benefits and limitations are recognised, abstracts have a valuable role in helping the reader to sift through a large number of potentially relevant articles at any one time. At best an abstract provides a summary and/or offers insight into the article's content and relevance; at worst it distorts or inaccurately reflect content and relevance. It is recommended that authors be vigilant in their citation of others' work, and responsibly read and represent such work in a respectful and accurate manner, without cutting corners by depending on abstracts alone.


Anderson, K. (2011). Reconsidering the abstract: Are the unintended consequences mounting? Retrieved from are-t he-unintended-consequences-mounting/

Belcher, W. L. (2009). Writing your journal article in 12 weeks: A guide to academic publishing success. Los Angeles: Sage.

Harbourt, A. M., Knecht, L. S., & Humphreys, B. L. (1995). Structured abstracts in MEDLINE, 1989-1991. Bulletin of the Medical LibraryAssociation, 83(2), 190-195.

Pitkin, R. M., Branagan, M. A., & Burmeister, L. R. (2000). Effectiveness of a journalintervention to improve abstract quality. Journal of the American Medical Association, 281, 1110-1111. doi: 10.1001/jama.283.4.481

Winker, M. A. (1998). The need for concrete improvement in abstract quality. Journal of the American Medical Association, 281, 1129-1130. doi: 10.1001/ jama.281.12.1129

Zeiger, M. (2000). Essentials of writing biomedical research papers (2nd ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Denise Wilson


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