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What is a scientific abstract?


And how do I read it?
For the non-scientist, reading a scientific abstract can be very frustrating. You can end up feeling more at sea than when you began.
However, non-scientists can and do benefit from reading scientific abstracts, usually by understanding the structure and purpose of abstracts and be learning what jargon and structural features to ignore.
Abstracts mirror the structure of scientific papers themselves. They are intended to allow busy scientists to review the content of a paper without having to read the paper, so they can decide whether to commit their time to obtaining and reading the original paper. So abstracts, even more so than scientific papers, are intended to be brief, telegraphic, and to only hint at the thought processes that are described more fully in the full paper.
Because most of the readers of a scientific abstract will be specialists in the same or similar fields, there is a great deal of use of jargon to allow the writer to get to the point more quickly. Thus the word "carcinosarcoma" may be used instead of "the kind of cancer that includes skin-type cells and internal-organ-type cells mixed together." To cut through this, a good medical/scientific dictionary can help, although the definitions tend to use a lot of technical terms as well. I found a good one online at http://www.medicinenet.com/script/main/hp.asp
A typical abstract uses headers to divide the text into logical parts. These can include "Introduction," "Objectives," "Materials," "Methods," "Results and "Conclusions." As a lay person, you may not be interested at all in anything except the "results" and "conclusions."
But when you read the conclusions, you need to refrain from the making the kind of conclusions that many other, non-scientific pieces of writing you have read usually expect you to make. The conclusion of a scientific paper is always assumed to be a contingent, or tentative conclusion. The scientist will try, but not always succeed, at expressing it this way. In other words, the scientist is just reporting what these data seem to suggest. New data from another experiment or another researcher could very well make these conclusions invalid.
Consumers of medical research should not make the mistake of concluding from a single abstract that, for example, "yes, I should take this drug," or "No, I should not take this drug." A scientists would never base such an action on a single study. A scientists would say "according to these data, it appears there may be a risk (or may be a benefit) to taking this drug." There's a difference.
At this writing, in December, 2000, I found two fairly good articles online about scientific papers and how to read them. Please let me know if you touch these links and they no longer work.
http://www.harcourtcollege.com/student/scipaper1.html
http://www.biochem.arizona.edu/classes/bioc568/papers.htm
If you read an abstract that is of particular interest, you might want to read the entire paper. For this you may need to travel to a real-world, meat-space, three dimensional library full of paper books and journals. Most scientific journals do not release the full text of their articles online. If they do, they are usually password-protected to allow only members of the particular scientific society or subscribers to the particular journal to have access. Keep in mind that not all journals are carried by all libraries. If you are going to be looking for a particular article, it's best to call ahead and make certain the library you have in mind carries the journal which contains your article.

This information is forwarded to you by the Prostatitis Foundation. We do not provide medical advice. We distribute literature and information relevant to prostatitis. While we encourage all research we do not endorse any doctor, medicine or treatment protocol. Consult with your own physician.
© 2002 The Prostatitis Foundation
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