The problem with abstracts

I’ve written at reasonable length here and here about why I think plain language summaries on scientific abstracts would be a good idea. I plan to start producing a few myself (and if anyone would like to volunteer to chip in, I’d be more than grateful!). Before I start though, I thought a brief post on why we should treat abstracts with a little caution might be a good idea.

Abstracts are pretty ubiquitous in the scientific literature. They’re designed to give a brief overview of the paper; summarising the methods and the main results so that the reader can tell if the article is relevant to their needs without reading the whole thing. If the abstract looks promising, then that’s a good sign that it’s worth investing the time to read the whole thing.

But there are some caveats. Some of the same temptations that journalists face crop up – it’s very alluring to state your findings in the grandest terms, to get people interested in reading the whole paper. In fact, it’s not as uncommon as you might think to find that abstracts are actually misleading. A recent paper (and I do realise the irony of linking to an abstract here!) found that nearly a quarter of randomised controlled trials in the field of rheumatology have misleading claims in their abstracts. Another recent paper (and you can read the whole thing this time) found that when abstracts are misleading, or contain “spin”, this in turn leads to spin in the media reports of it.

I suspect (or rather, hope) that all of this is usually done with relatively pure intentions, but there’s no getting away from it – misleading information is not useful, and potentially harmful.

The other important thing to consider is that abstracts are short – they simply do not contain all of the detail of the full paper, as that would rather defeat the object. But this means that they miss out some information that can sometimes be crucial. For instance, the abstract may state that a trial is randomised, while the text reveals that randomisation was done using a method that’s not robust. A small detail like this might cast doubt over the findings of the entire trial, but you won’t find it in the abstract. That’s why it’s alway important to fully “critically appraise” a paper (in other words, take it apart and check for holes) before taking its conclusions at face value.

So as I embark on my little experiment, I’ll be bearing all of this in mind; and you should too. I will do my best to honestly represent the studies I cover, and I’ll read the full thing before producing my summaries whenever possible. However, there’s only one of me, and like most people in the modern world I have rather limited time available to do this in. Be patient with me, and take everything with a pinch of salt.

Update: The first plain language summary, trastuzumab emtansine for breast cancer, is now online.  All future summaries will be published under the Plain language summaries category.  As ever, all feedback gratefully received!

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Posted on October 18, 2012, in Evidence, Plain language summaries, Science communication and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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