Writing effective titles, abstracts, and summaries

Laura Falkenberg and Kelsey Poulson-Ellestad

 

Journal articles are the key means of communicating scientific research. Unfortunately, academic texts are often characterized by a complicated writing style and abundance of jargon, which reduces clarity and effectiveness. This is particularly problematic for authors with a goal to make their work accessible to, and get it noticed by, researchers from different fields. Achieving these goals requires thoughtful writing. To start addressing these issues, at the recent ASLO Aquatic Sciences Meeting in San Juan, Puerto Rico, we led a workshop on how to compose effective titles, abstracts, and summaries. Our goal for this workshop was to enhance awareness of the need for effective writing, and share some tips for how to achieve this. Here, we summarize key tips presented in the workshop.

 

Keywords

A key feature of all manuscript components are they keywords you choose to use in them. When we say “keywords” here we don’t necessarily mean those listed in the keyword field, but rather a (typically wider) set of words or phrases that are repeated at key points in your manuscript. Choice of keywords is important given they can influence the visibility of your work on search engines and abstract indexing services. One way to approach choosing your keywords is to brainstorm a large list keywords and phrases, specifically phrases that you would enter into a search engine to find an article like the one you’ve written. Given that people search for short phrases, they will be better for visibility than single word alternatives. You can then test your keywords and phrases using a tool like Google Trends (see here) to get an idea of how popular they are. Once your keywords are selected, you should use them in the title, weave them through the abstract, summary, and manuscript subheadings, and of course populate them in the keyword field.

 

Titles

Titles are important in several ways, and are probably under-utilized as a tool for improving the visibility of your work. Effective titles clearly describe the major findings (preferably at the beginning) using keywords and phrases to do so, while avoiding phrases such as “effect of”, “evidence of” etc. These approaches help enhance your articles discoverability on search engines. There is also some mixed evidence that short titles correlate with increased citations (e.g., <15 words; see here), so keeping it short may have advantages.

 

Abstracts

While most authors are familiar and comfortable with what goes into an abstract, it still warrants mention. Abstracts that contain keywords and phrases are more visible in search engine results and databases. Because abstracts are often the most read part of a paper (in some cases the only read part, since some readers may only have access to your title, abstract, and keywords if your work is behind a paywall), you should strive to summarize your key points in simple language that is relatively free of jargon and complex sentence construction. These key points will typically cover the motivation for the study, specific problem that was addressed, methods used, results obtained, and conclusions and implications drawn.

 

Summaries

More and more journals are requiring additional article elements, in the hope of increasing the accessibility of the research they publish. These elements are usually summaries of varying formats including video abstracts, graphical abstracts, and written summaries (sometimes called lay summaries, significance statements, etc.). The ASLO family of journals allow for optional video abstracts for accepted papers in Limnology and Oceanography and Limnology and Oceanography: Methods, which are then posted on the ASLO YouTube channel. Limnology and Oceanography: Letters requires a three-sentence summary statement.

Video abstracts are generally only 1-2 minutes long and are most effective when using a story formula (and, but, therefore). Simple figures, graphs and visuals work well, and a smartphone is usually sufficient for filming.

Graphical abstracts are typically most effective when they are specially designed, and are not a just of copy of your favorite figure from your paper. Design aspects that need to be considered are the use of images, words (a good rule of thumb is to aim for < 80), font, panels, negative space, and size  (will depend on platform shared on – Facebook 1200 × 630; Instagram 1080 × 1800; Twitter 440 × 220; LinkedIn 350 × any).

Both graphical abstracts and video abstracts are a great way for authors to express a little more creativity (compared to the standard elements of a scientific paper) in describing and sharing their work. Moreover, these products can be great material for promoting your work via social media, blogs, or your lab website.

Written summaries often contain the following pieces of information: 1) the topic of the paper, 2) the challenge or knowledge gap the study was intended to fill, 3) your key conclusion. However, summaries are short (often <200 words!) and are written with a completely different audience in mind than the traditional abstract – the audience for these are researchers outside of your field and/or the general public. Therefore, summaries cannot simply be a re-wording or shortening of your abstract. To write these pieces effectively, authors need to minimize the amount of jargon (i.e., rarely used words using, for example, the de-jargonizer: http://scienceandpublic.com) and to create simplified sentence structures that aim for relatively high readability (which can be tested using the Flesch Reading Index tools available online or in Microsoft Word).

 

As noted above, this blog post is based on a worksop we ran at the recent ASLO Aquatic Sciences Meeting; additional resources we promoted are listed below. In the past we’ve also run workshops on ‘Effective Peer Review’ (based on this paper). If you’re organizing a conference and would like to include a similar event, please contact us (via e-mail at rcef_aslo@outlook.com or Twitter @rcef_aslo).

 

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