November 19, 2020

Short steps on how to read a paper. Part 3: The abstract.

Now you have scanned your journals and identified the papers to read. It is time to look at the article. The first thing that readers often look at is the abstract. I think that there are several essential things to look at.

You can waste a lot of time looking at the abstracts. You can also easily misinterpret the abstract.

It is also my experience that the abstract is not always accurate. This tends to happen because it is frequently the last part of a paper to be written and can be a bit of an afterthought.

Furthermore, investigators tend to write abstracts in the hope of attracting the readers’ attention and perhaps overstate their findings. I am as guilty as anyone of doing this.

So here are my tips to avoid you wasting too much of your time:

The tips
  1. Don’t read the abstract in isolation. You already know that you are interested in the paper from your initial search for information. So why not go straight into reading the paper? I will, of course, go into reading papers in later posts.
  2. If you are going to read an abstract, look for structured abstracts because these are laid out with required headings. These make reading the abstract easier.
  3. Look carefully at the aims and objectives. Are they still interesting to you?
  4. Is the method clear? For example, is it what you expected from the title?
  5. If you are expecting a randomised controlled trial and you see that the abstract does not contain information on randomisation, then this is likely not to be a trial. There are reporting guidelines specifically for abstracts, and these should be followed.
  6. Are the results clear?  Do not assume that all the results are included in the abstract.
  7. Are the conclusions clear? Do not assume that they reflect the findings at the end of the paper.

In summary, do not only read the abstract. This is what a large number of people do. The abstract only gives the briefest information about the study. If you want to critically appraise the paper, you need to read the paper. Just reading abstracts is not good practice and opens you up to misinterpretation.

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Have your say!

  1. Thx Kevin – you allude to one of my pet peeves.
    would appreciate some clarification on your #7 regarding conclusions, from yourself or any fellow reader. Conclusions: “Do not assume they reflect the findings”. I was under the impression that conclusions should speak directly and only to the aim /s of the paper, those findings addressed by the methodology and that any additional incidental findings or observations should be raised in the discussion. I feel that I may be outdated here, is there a protocol or can any finding, one tested in the study as well as incidental findings be listed in the conclusion? Personally I don’t appreciate random findings and suggestions raised in the conclusions unless they have been specifically tested, as I feel that they are often subjective statements that reflect author bias – the final message they want to reflect, rather than the actual research findings. Is there a “rule?”

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