4 posts categorized "Abstracts"

April 18, 2014

Gimme Structure

Daisiesby Stefanie

Abstracts have been addressed on the APA Style blog before (twice, in fact, and very well both times—do give them a read or reread!). The following is a humble contribution to the literature on APA Style abstracts that discusses a particular type: the structured abstract.

The structured abstract is a way of writing and formatting abstracts that is very, well, structured. Gimme structure photo Often used with empirical articles (i.e., those detailing experiments), structured abstracts include headings that run into the text and identify the different elements of the article that are described in the abstract. According to the National Library of Medicine of the National Institutes of Health,

These formats were developed in the late 1980s and early 1990s to assist health professionals in selecting clinically relevant and methodologically valid journal articles. They also guide authors in summarizing the content of their manuscripts precisely, facilitate the peer-review process for manuscripts submitted for publication, and enhance computerized literature searching. (para. 1)

The headings do count toward your word limit, which is typically somewhere in the range of 150 to 250 words (for APA journals; other publications, databases, or projects may have different limits). However, headings add around four to six words to the total, depending on which headings you use, so the strain should not be great.

Set in bold and italic type, each heading is followed by a colon and the first sentence of that subsection. The headings and their subsequent text immediately follow each other; that is, your abstract is going to be a single paragraph, so please do not hit Enter after each heading’s text. The usual headings for APA journals requiring them (with some variations; see the Instructions to Authors for each journal) are Objective, Method, Results, and Conclusion(s). The Psychiatric Rehabilitation Journal author instructions provide an excellent example of abstract instructions with heading options to better fit different types of articles.

When should you use structured abstracts? When someone asks you to or if the headings help you write your abstract. You can always remove the headings on request and still be left with a strong, comprehensive abstract.

Example abstract:

Objective: In this study, we investigated the psychological effects of radical gamma-radiation-caused mutation and transformation to determine whether the transformation affects personality and mood as well as physicality. Method: The single participant filled out the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory—2 and other self-report measures assessing his state of mind, stress (Acute Stress Disorder Scale), and depression (Beck Depression Inventory). The participant was then asked to mediate an argument between 2 confederates, who had been told to not yield on any point of their entirely unreasonable positions. Once the participant had experienced a massive cellular shift triggered by adrenalin (“hulked out”), he (eventually) filled out the various self-report measures again. Results: The participant’s results showed significant differences in both personality and mood. Among other results, the participant maxed out his pretransformation Hypochondriasis scale score, whereas the score bottomed out posttransformation. Scores pre- and posttransformation were similar on the Paranoia scale, whereas Hypomania and Schizophrenia scale scores were low pretransformation and high posttransformation. Stress and depression scores were high at both testing occasions, but we observed that the madder he got, the stronger his scores became. Conclusions: Gamma radiation changes people exposed to it psychologically as well as physically; it also affects mood. More research is needed to replicate these results; participant recruitment is underway.

Photo: Viktors Ignatenko/Hemera/Thinkstock.

November 14, 2011

Brevity Is the Soul of Lingerie (and Abstracts)

by Anne Breitenbach

AnneBreitenbachComing back at long last to my promised series on abstracts, let’s begin with the first clause of the Publication Manual description in section 2.04: “An abstract is a brief, comprehensive summary of the contents of the article.” Our focus in this post is the “brief” part of that instruction. Your job as abstract writer is to give the prospective reader the essential information as succinctly as possible. Although you’re not quite reduced to haiku, you are restricted to what's crucial. 

In Chapter 2, which covers manuscript structure and content, section 2.04 gives us a number of specifics.  It notes that if you are preparing a paper for a specific journal, then that journal may well provide information on the abstract somewhere in the instructions to authors. Read that information. Abide by it. The most common instruction is likely to be about length. For APA journals, for instance, the instructions read, “All manuscripts must include an abstract containing a maximum of 250 words.”  If yours exceeds a limit, it may be cut arbitrarily wherever the limit falls, or it may be hacked apart by a copyeditor who has firm instructions on what to take out and what to leave in, which may well not agree with your opinion. Likewise, if you are creating an abstract for an instructor or in accordance with university guidelines, you should check and see whether they have guidelines you need to abide by.  

But back to section 2.04, here are some “don’ts”:

  • Do not include [oops. I’m afraid I just hit 250 words in these two paragraphs and so am out of space. Yes, that’s what 250 words look like. Not very long is it?] information that doesn’t appear in the manuscript. 
  • Do not evaluate in the abstract—instead, report [“I did” not “I believe”].
  • Do not get bogged down with nouns when there’s a sturdy verb available [“used” not “the utilization of”].
  • Do not use passive voice when active makes sense [“Bill ate five sandwiches” not “Five sandwiches were eaten by Bill”].
  • Do not repeat the title; in fact, don’t repeat—space is too precious.


The Manual also gives suggestions on other ways to save space. 

  • Instruction on abbreviations is a bit oblique. Section 4.22 states, “In all circumstances other than in the reference list and in the abstract [italic added], you must decide whether (a) to spell it out a given expression every time it is used in an article or (b) to spell it out initially and abbreviate it thereafter.”  So presumably abbreviations should be used in abstracts as a matter of course. 
  • Section 4.31(b) tells you to set numbers in the abstract as numerals.


Changes That Your Professor May Not Know About

Previous editions of the Publication Manual gave more extensive instructions on specifically how to keep the abstract brief.  This has led to a bit of a Catch-22, as in the sixth edition, in an effort to actually be brief, we removed some of those guidelines. We thus now have a gray area where the ghosts of old rules, still remembered by many a professor and editor, haunt the newer, less circumscribed instructions on keeping abstracts short and clear.

Here are some examples of ways in which guidelines about abstracts in the sixth edition differ from those given in the fifth edition:

  • In previous editions, writers were instructed to include initials with the surnames of authors cited in the abstract. That instruction is now gone.
  • Previously, the Manual included instructions stipulating use of the third person rather than first in the abstract (the opposite of the usual preference; see section 3.09). That specific instruction is gone, but the example given in the paragraph on being coherent and readable is written in the third person. Thus, presumably third person is still acceptable in the abstract but is not required.
  • The whole instruction-rich section on being “self-contained” is gone. That section had included advice on defining abbreviations and unique terms and spelling out names of tests. Although those suggestions are still useful ways of saving space in an abstract, they are no longer specified in the Manual.

So be brief, be clear, and be prepared. 

March 03, 2011

Making a Concrete Abstract

Anne   by Anne Breitenbach

  The Publication Manual (2.04) states that “A well-prepared abstract can be the most important single paragraph in an article.”  Indeed, it would be hard to overstate the abstract’s importance if you want to publish and actually have your work read and cited. Your article (or dissertation or conference presentation) uses a ploy similar to that of an anglerfish.  The abstract is the lure that beguiles the elusive researcher to the article, much as the fleshy growth suspended from an anglerfish’s head entices its prey.  (There are differenceHumpback_anglerfishs, of course. The anglerfish lurks in underwater caves and lures its prey by a long filament, whereas your article lurks in a journal and seductively waves its abstract from a bibliographic database such as Dissertation Abstracts or APA’s own PsycINFO. Other differences include that most research doesn’t try to engulf its reader whole.)  

The abstract’s special functions determine the specifics of its form. Rule 2.04 tells us that it should do three things well:


First, it needs to find its audience. Practically, that means you need to embed keywords that “enhance the user’s ability to find it.”  This is an excellent example of a place where Mark Twain’s dictum applies. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” You need to use current, intuitive, and accurate terminology. We’ll talk more about keywords in an upcoming post.


Second, it’s got to be a good abstract. That is, it needs to encapsulate the essence of the article in a way that gives all essential information but sifts out the inessential. The core of that information is consistent across articles, but specific kinds of articles—for example, a literature review or meta-analysis, a theory-oriented paper, or a case study—also have specific requirements.  We’ll talk more about what elements all articles require and what particular elements specific kinds of articles require in an upcoming post.


Third, yep, it needs to be in APA Style.  And because there are special rules that apply to abstracts in terms of length (word limits vary from journal to journal and typically range from 150 to 250 words), required elements, and need to make sense in isolation from the article, there are a number of rules that are unique to the abstract. For example, there are specific rules that apply to numbers, to abbreviations, to citations. Those too we’ll explore in an upcoming post. 

April 15, 2010

Feel Like a Number? A Tax Day Tribute

Anne

by Anne Breitenbach

If April isn’t the cruelest month, it’s got to at least be in the running for those of us who dread our national accounting deadline of April 15th. But today does seem an appropriate day to begin to look at the rules governing numbers in APA Style. The basic rule with numbers is simplicity itself: Use numerals to express numbers 10 and above and words to express numbers below 10. As with so many things, the devil is in the details. This rule is subject to a number of exceptions. Most of them make sense intuitively, and all have a sound logical basis if considered individually. Let’s take a look at those rules in a few posts.

Let me start by noting one change between the 5th and 6th editions of the Publication Manual. Rule 3.42(b) in the 5th edition stated that “all numbers below 10 that are grouped for comparison with number 10 and above” are set as figures. The reason was to compare like with like, but in practice, it sometimes led to odd results. The writer would scan each paragraph looking for numbers 10 and above, and there are some very long paragraphs in research papers! In addition, formatting could change from paragraph to paragraph if one part of the argument happened to include numbers above and below 10 and the next didn’t. Therefore, for simplicity and consistency, that rule is no longer applied in the 6th edition.

What exceptions do exist to using words to express numbers below 10? One rule is that numbers in the abstract of a paper are set as figures. A main reason for that is that space is at a premium in the abstract, which frequently is excerpted from the paper and set in a bibliographic record field. Those fields may have a limited number of characters—we’ll call it longer than a tweet but shorter than many authors might prefer if left without limits. But in any case, conciseness is a virtue in an abstract. A second related rule is that figures are used instead of numbers in graphical displays within a paper. Again, a main part of the reasoning is that space is at a premium in a graphic and the numbers are usually there for comparison purposes. Side-by-side figures are easier than side-by-side words to compare.

Next, we’ll look at numbers that are used with measurement or that represent statistical or mathematical functions.

 

 

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