[This posting originally was written for the April 2009 Editor's Message. Here it is in its new blog form!]
The most important part of your paper, other than the title, is the abstract, because it helps readers decide if they want to see more. JAWRA abstracts are viewable online by anyone, and are downloaded five times as often as full papers. Website readers typically decide in a few seconds whether to continue reading a page or to click on to the next one. If you don’t grab their attention in the first couple of sentences, you’ve missed your chance!
Unfortunately, too many authors don’t write an effective abstract. They include irrelevant or less important material, or leave out information which should be included. All of this hurts the chances of your paper being read – and cited! So, the Associate Editors and I decided abstract writing is an area which needs some attention this year.
Don’t waste the precious first sentences of your abstract stating the obvious. Most JAWRA readers already know water is essential to life, pollution is bad, climate change affects watersheds, etc. Get right to the point of telling the reader what you did, what you found, and why it’s important! Tell them what is original about your paper, and why, among hundreds of offerings, they want to read this one.
Problems with length often arise because authors try to fit everything into their abstract. The abstract is not the entire paper, and it is unreasonable to expect an abstract to completely inform a reader about a paper’s findings, including all details and qualifications.
Scientific work must be documented in detail. However, unless analytical methods are the main point of your paper, their details do not belong in the abstract. Most readers won’t care whether you used a 2 or 3 mm sieve, and those who do probably will read the full paper anyway.
Scientists dislike making bold, assertive statements. Well aware of the limitations of our conclusions, we bury them in qualifiers and warnings about how our work must not be misinterpreted. Some conclusions, of course, are so limited they need qualifiers, and the importance or certainty of a finding must not be overstated. While it may be appropriate to warn there are limitations, the details of these limitations belong in the body of the paper, not the abstract.
The “Issue Highlights” section of JAWRA describes in one or two sentences the findings of selected papers. In preparing highlights, I always try to quote from the abstracts. Sometimes I have to reach into a paper itself and draw words from the conclusions; I often wonder why the authors didn’t do so themselves. So, when preparing your abstract, it would be a good idea to think of what one would extract for the highlights, and to make sure those words stand out.
Less can be more in an abstract. Julius Caesar wrote one of my favorites, just three words in the original Latin: “I came, I saw, I conquered.” Roman citizens knew where he was campaigning, so he left that detail for the body of his report. His abstract informed the readers just enough to let them know he’d won, and to make them want to read more. And the rest is history!