Summaries of summaries: abstracts and the like

OK so this is one of those things that sounds dull but is really important professionally and also a useful tool when linked to critical reading.  Stick with it since there is a lovely bit of research to discover at the end.

So a summary is: ‘a brief statement or account of the main points of something and does not include needless details or formalities and is above all else brief!  In academic/professional circles it has many names, including: synopsis, précis, résumé, abstract, abridgement, digest, compendium, condensation, encapsulation, abbreviated version and/or case/evidence summary.

Here I am going to focus on the précis, executive summary, abstract, and lay summary.  I would also draw your attention to the use of the rhetorical triangle which is always worth remembering.


A summary for another professional or yourself and I would argue that it is a key part of critical reading.  So what are the goals?

  • Compress and clarify a lengthy passage, article, or book, while retaining important concepts, key words, and important data.
  • It is not a personal interpretation of a work or an expression of your opinion but rather, an exact miniature replica of the work itself.
  • It is about removing the superfluous so that the core of the work stands proud.
  • It should give a brief description of key terms, describe actions or methods applied and report the key results. It should finally state the next actions/steps and/or the main conclusions.
  • When finished, the précis should clearly state: (1) who did the study; (2) what the context and rationale was; (3) what was studied, argued or discussed; (4) how was it done; (5) what was learned; and (6) what the implications of the work are and what now needs doing.

While it may seem obvious it is critical that you understand the material in question and have read it all.  It is not about extracting sentences or quotes, but involves reading the piece and then setting it aside to write the précis.  You need to see and understand the whole first. Aim to fit it on no more than one page of A4, less if you can, but emit nothing from the essential argument or most pertinent data.  Do not copy a single sentence from the article! Use key words and technical phrases where there is no alternative.  When you are done review your précis to confirm that you have explained the main point of the article, identified the supporting evidence that the writer uses, and have used the same logical structure as the text.  Finally, check for clarity, coherence, and correctness.  If there is one key graph/diagram you may wish to clip it via image capture and append it to the summary.

I have written before about the use of the rhetorical triangle and there is such a thing as the Rhetorical Précis Format.  It runs something like this:

  1. In a single coherent sentence give the following:
    • Name of the author, title of the work, date in parenthesis.
    • A rhetorically accurate verb (such as “assert,” “argue,” “deny,” “refute,” “prove,” disprove,” “explain,” etc.)
    • Athat clause containing the major claim (thesis statement) of the work.
  2. In a single coherent sentence give an explanation of how the author develops and supports the major claim (thesis statement).
  3. In a single coherent sentence give a statement of the author’s purpose, followed by an “in order” phrase.
  4. In a single coherent sentence give a description of the intended audience and/or the relationship the author establishes with the audience.

Executive Summary

This is a key feature of a professional report such as you might write in professional practice.  There is a huge amount of advice on line to help write the perfect summary for a business report.  While written about stuff far from geography you still may find some useful pointers in this, just Google tips for writing executive summaries.  Whatever others may say the executive summary is not the same as an abstract.  They are different.

The basic point is that busy people want to get to the heart of the issues quickly.  They want to know whether they need to read the whole report, and know if it will it be relevant and interesting to them. People are basically lazy, so can they get the gist of the work without reading the report, or at least focus their reading on the key sections?  In writing a report you want to make sure that the key recommendations/actions are front and central and you do this via the summary.  It is not a précis, for one thing it can be longer and it expresses the main argument and conclusions of a work.  It usually has an opinion!

Here are some pointers:

  • Who is the intended audience of your executive summary?  Is it your boss, a group of colleagues, or the general public?  What content do they really need to know? When you are writing you should keep your intended audience in mind at all times and write it for them. If your audience includes your boss think: how much do they already know, and how much do you need to explain?  If your audience includes journalists, you probably need to explain everything.
  • First categorise the document by whether it needs action or is for information only. This will determine the language that you use.
  • Next, you need to identify what, when they have finished reading, are the key messages that you want your audience to have in their heads.
  • If you find yourself getting bogged down in the detail at this stage, it’s a good idea to talk to someone else about what to include.
  • The language you use needs to be formal and the normal convention is to use a three part structure: introduction, body and conclusion.
  • You need to grab you reader early so use some form of hook to draw them in is essential.
  • Finally it acceptable to use a few bullet points in this type of summary.  These should highlight three or four key points or take away messages at the end.

Academic Abstracts

Abstracts are a whole new type of summary and an academic requirement for published papers, conference presentation, dissertation and thesis.  They have various aims but essentially they are about two things.  Firstly, they aid selection by the reader or conference attendee and secondly they assist with indexing via indexing and search services.

A good abstract should always be original work, and not simply an excerpted passage from the paper.  It should also be self-contained making sense by itself, normally without references or to the actual paper. It is also in most cases word/character limited and for some journals you are required to follow a given structure.  A good abstract is hard to write and needs practice.  As with lots of similar tasks there is a lot of guidance online some of it good a lot of it bad.  So what would be essential content?

  • Reason for writing: What is the importance of the research? Why would a reader be interested in in it?
  • Problem: What problem does the work attempt to solve? What is the scope of the project? What is the main argument, thesis or claim?
  • Methodology: A brief summary of methods and approaches is normal and the types of evidence collected, or experiments complete is normally considered essential.
  • Results: It should include specific data that indicates the results of the project. Other abstracts may discuss the findings in a more general way.
  • Implications: How does this work add to the body of knowledge on the topic? Are there any practical or theoretical applications from your findings or implications for future research?

The key thing is to distinguish between ‘describing what is in the paper’ and ‘reporting what is in the paper’.  The latter is what you are aiming for.  Here are a few examples of what not to do and what to aim for:

Poor: “We will scope the research in the field.”

Better: “Research in this field falls into three areas they are: . . . .”

Poor: “We follow the methods of Robinson (1968).”

Better: “We use a total capture method in which all insects in the study area were collected. “

Poor: “We describe the results and conclusions are drawn.”

Better: “What are the results and what are the implications?”

Poor: “We describe five geological sections in detail.”

Better: “Five geological sections are examined they reveal a range of lithofacies including those associated with lacustrine, coastal and aeolian depostional settings.”

Poor: “The implications of our findings are discussed.”

Better: “The implications of our results for the nuclear industry are clear; nuclear power plants are at risk in coastal settings around the North Atlantic Margin.”

Finally as with all writing we are encouraged to be concise, precise and to say things once and only once.  Brevity is everything, who want to read a load of waffle?  You will find that almost all the advice online focuses on brevity, but is this actually what is needed?

I came across this wonderful bit of research recently by Weinberger et al. (2015) around the ten simple rules for science writing.  They collected over a1 million abstracts from eight disciplines, (Ecology, Evolution, Genetics, Analytic Chemistry, Condensed Matter Physics, Geology, Mathematics, and Psychology) over 17 years and subject them to analysis.  They identified ten writing rules based on published ‘advice’ and normalised them against citations.  Figure 1 is their summary chart with rules shown vertical and disciplines horizontal.  If the cell in the table is blue it shows a significant rise in citations associated with each rule and if it’s red a decrease in citations.journal.pcbi.1004205.g001

Figure 1: The conclusions of Weinberger et al (2015)

The results are counter-intuitive!  So the advice says use fewer words and sentences (Rule R1a,b) and don’t use ‘superlatives or hype’ (Rule 8) yet both are associated with lower rates of citation.  The data actually implies that using wordy sentences with flowery language full of superlatives and writing long abstracts actually increases your change of being cited!  What is going on here?  The answer probably lies according to Weinberger et al. (2015) in the fact that academics like to read short concise abstracts but the longer they are the greater the chances of them being picked up by a search and surfaced for them to read in the first place.  Academics read what they can find easily and that is what Google Scholar and the like can surface quickly.  This dichotomy leaves the abstract writer with rather a challenge, and one that I don’t have an answer for!  Except this, if you’re a student keep it short, concise and to the point always!






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