Avoiding abstracts

imgp2670As most, if not all, of you will know scientific meeting abstracts can make up an important part of scientific research. For those that are unaware, well formal scientific meetings, researchers who are attending send off short abstracts of their work that they will present at the meeting (if you have not seen one before a quick google will give you a good idea). Usually this is just a couple of hundred words describing the very basics of the work, though occasionally you get longer ones with reference lists and even figures. This means that in advance of the meeting and the talk itself you have an idea of what is being discussed which helps understand the presentation itself. If it’s a big meeting where you can’t attend every talk, then the abstract can help you decide which talks you want to see (or avoid) and afterwards you have a record of who said what about what subject. In theroy at least, and that is the problem.

Short abstracts are not peer reviewed and of course they do not come with reference lists, data sets, statistics, detailed methodologies or anything else that you would expect in a formal paper. However, researchers still cite them in actual scientific papers just like they would with normal papers and people will happily discuss them (especially online) as they would any other paper. Of course it is understood that they do not have the same authority as papers, but I would argue that in many cases they simply should not be used at all.

The fundamental lack of information, data and peer review means that you can have no confidence in whatever was said in an abstract. Yes of course I trust my colleagues (well, most of them) to produce good science to the best of their ability, but without a dataset I (or anyone else) can’t check that they didn’t make a mistake somewhere, or excluded an important datapoint, or used the wrong statistics, put the decimal point in the wrong place or whatever. Without peer review, we can’t ensure that there is no deliberate or acidental misleading of the reader theough manipulation of the work, or a balanced view of the evidence or whatever. Often these abstracts are followed up by formal papers which do provide the level of detail and review that is necessary, but of course many never do become papers, some take several years and are left as abstracts, and some researchers often cite abstracts in addition to the actual paper that resulted from them.

imgp2668Possibly most damning of all is the fact that there is no gaurantee that what was written actually reflects the opinion of the author, which is quite important. Abstracts are soemtimes submitted months in advance of a talk being given and in that time you might realsie that your bone belongs to a different species to the one you thought it did, or came from a different statigraphic level, or was put on upside down, or your stats were wrong or whatever. Of course in your presentation you can easily correct this to your audience, but the *written* and published record is still the abstract, and people who missed your talk, or the meeting, or didn’t take notes, or can’t remember what you said will be going from the words on the page, not the words you spoke.

As such, and hopefully understandably, I have a real problem with people citing abstracts most of the time. Yes there are of course extenuating circumstances for a number of them, (such as avoiding claim jumping on people, something I have recently had to do myself) and people are not going to stop anytime soon. However, I would caution both against their general use and treating them as authorities – even their own authors may not think they are especially accurate. The more extravagant or unusual the claims, the more you need to be careful about treating them as ‘science’ in the way that you would a paper – just becuase someone says they have a mid Triassic dinosaur or statistical proof that pterosaurs can’t fly doesn’t mean that they really do.

7 Responses to “Avoiding abstracts”

  1. 1 Mike Taylor 03/04/2009 at 6:06 pm

    You nailed it near the end: the principal reason for citing an abstract is to give the credit to the person who first came up with an idea, to avoid giving the impression that you did it first. Of course, not everyone does this as they should — but then, the sort of people who will fail to give credit for a published abstract are the sort of people who will also mysteriously overlook published papers, so there’s evidently not much that can be done about that.

  2. 2 David Hone 03/04/2009 at 10:03 pm

    I’d agree that that is the principle reason that I would cite and abstract and perhaps many other take the same approach. However this post was prompted by my having to wade through a ton of papers recently on a narrow-ish subject and find that a great many were repeatedly citing abstracts in the contex of “X showed that A and B were sister taxa in his analysis” and then the reference would turn out to be an abstract. Well, I can’t check that, so I don’t want to trust it, especially when the author of said abstract had published several other papers demonstrating the same thing, which were also cited, and all of which were several years old. Why in a paper of say 1998 cite an abstract by X in 1991 and then his papers of 1993 and 1994? I can’t check the 1991 data and it msut be the same stuff and the idea predated 1991 in any case, so that’s not a problem. Convoluted, but I hope you follow it.
    In short, it all seemed a bit unnecessary and certainly unhelpful. As I say there were several papers that did this and soem with multiple offences of this kind. Even if you are going down that route, I think you should at least note in the text that this is effectievly unpublished work, or an abstract etc. as the casual reader will not check the reference list for every paper and it implies a greater level of confidence in the result than is acually there.

  3. 4 Zach Miller 04/04/2009 at 2:17 am

    I think abstracts are useful when deciding what talks to see at SVP (it certainly helped me) but I never pay much more attention to them. I’ll read a paper’s abstract on the elevator to “get the gist” of what I’m about to digest, but there’s just not enough information in it to be very useful.

    My Opinion Only, of course.

  4. 5 David Hone 04/04/2009 at 8:11 am

    No, no, they *are* incredibly helpful, I’m not denying that. But then citing them as ‘science’ in the smae way as other papers is very problematic.

  5. 6 Christopher Collinson 04/04/2009 at 11:30 am

    “Possibly most damning of all is the fact that there is no gaurantee that what was written actually reflects the opinion of the author, which is quite important.”

    lol, like how David Unwin did a complete 180 (almost) with respect to a forwardly directed pteroid at SVP.

  6. 7 David Hone 04/04/2009 at 11:43 am

    Well I was thinking about that without actually mentioning Dave. It’s to his credit that he did do an about face publically, but it makes the point. He had changed his mind. However, until he gets that stuff published, I (or anyoen else) can cite that abstract in favour of the anterior pteroid hypothesis and use Dave’s name and arguments in it’s favour even when he himself would disagree. Unless you were there or knew about it, you would not know this and would not necessarily think to ask him for a pers. comm. to check since the words are there on the page and just a few months old. That is problematic.

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