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The Scourge of Abstract Abstracts

By Ryan Tracey / March 2012

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As an eLearning practitioner, I like to keep an eye on the research being published in academic journals. While ideas and opinions certainly have their place in the discourse, there is no substitute for scientifically derived evidence to inform my work.

Of course there aren't enough hours in the day to wade through an endless stream of articles, so I really heavily on their abstracts.

What is an Abstract?

An abstract is a concise summary of the research that is being reported.

Many authors write them well. Unfortunately, many don't. Far too many abstracts are vague, and they read like they were cobbled together as an afterthought. Effectively, they're useless.

For example, I've read abstracts containing statements to the effect of "the results are represented and their implications discussed." Well that describes every paper ever written!

What were the results?

What are the implications?

In other words, what is your contribution to the universal body of knowledge?

Top 5 Questions

I'm no editor, so it's not my place to dictate the requisite elements of your article's abstract. However, as a member of your target audience, I can tell you I am looking for answers to five simple questions:
  1. What did you do?
  2. Why did you do it?
  3. How did you do it?
  4. What were the results?
  5. So what?

In short, the abstract has to be substantive enough to stand-alone. It's not meant to be a movie trailer, so don't try to give me a tantalizing taste and expect to entice me in.

Leave that to Spielberg.

About the Author

Ryan Tracey is the E-Learning Manager at AMP, a financial services organization based in Sydney, Australia. His work focuses on adult learning in the corporate sector, and he maintains a particular interest in blended learning, informal learning and social media. Tracey has worked in the eLearning field for several years in the finance industry, following several more years in the higher education market. He holds a master's degree in Learning Sciences and Technology from the University of Sydney. He is a regular contributor to various industry magazines, and he has won several training awards in the Asia-Pacific region. He blogs as the E-Learning Provocateur and can be found on Twitter @ryantracey.

Copyright is held by the author. ACM 1535-394X/12/02 $10.00

DOI: 10.1145/2157652.2167095


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