Long, Jargon-Filled Abstracts Win Citation Count

The Chronicle of Higher Education (sub req'd) ran an article reporting on a recent study of abstracts. The study found that articles with longer, jargon-filled abstracts are more likely to be cited across fields.

As CHE noted, Academics are often encouraged to write clearly and concisely, but that imperative may actually limit a paper’s impact on scholarship. A new study out of the University of Chicago has found that papers with longer, jargon-laden abstracts are more likely to be cited in other academic works than are brief, clear abstracts, which researchers are typically taught to write.

In a review of about one million abstracts, the three-person research team analyzed each one for clarity by evaluating metrics such as sentence length, parts of speech, and how much emotion was included in word choice. The researchers drew on that analysis to develop a mean score for each abstract. They then compared that score with how often each article was cited, theorizing that the most-cited articles were easily found through search engines. The research team looked specifically at articles in the top journals in eight scientific fields over 17 years. They selected the top journals using Scopus, a database of abstracts and citations of academic articles.

As on one of the researchers said, "[i]t’s pretty much completely opposite of the common advice. They tell you, 'Keep it as short and succinct, to the point, and have one main point per abstract.' And our findings are almost completely opposite, not only for one subject, but it was across fields. And even more than that, it was pretty uniform across all the journals in each field. So how unanimous the finding was, and the fact that it’s opposite what most people are told to do, is very surprising."

When I discussed this study with my law-faculty colleagues, the first thing that they mentioned was the dichotomy between the advice to get published versus this new advice to have an impact. While it hasn't been studied in depth, it is common advice for legal scholars to write concise abstracts to get published in law reviews. But it seems that the concise abstracts written to get published may be working against them for purposes of scholarly impact.

Another colleague verified what some of the commenters of the CHE article mentioned: That oftentimes researchers do not read beyond the abstract. If the abstract contains a more informative synopsis of the paper, the researchers will cite to the wording in the abstract without actually reading the entire article. This makes some sense as to why articles with longer, jargon-filled abstracts get cited more often.

An interesting observation indeed!


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