How to: Read the abstract of a scientific research paper

Abstracts are summaries — the short paragraph that usually explains the question a study was asking and the answers it found, plus a brief overview of what methods the researchers used. Because most peer-reviewed scientific research papers sit behind big, awkward pay walls, abstracts are often the only part of the paper that you, the general public, can easily read. That's why it's important to know what to look for in an abstract and how to interpret the information you read there. Noah Gray, a senior editor at the journal Nature, put together an introduction to abstracts. It's online at The Huffington Post.


  1. Or, the public could get used to reading research in open access journals like PLoS Biology, where the whole paper is available and not just the abstract. While I’m all for teaching the public how to read an abstract, I can’t help but wonder if the underlying message for someone from a for-profit closed journal like _Nature_ is to get the public used to paywalls as being natural for scientific research. Not a good lesson to learn.

  2. What I find incredibly offensive about the journal paywalls is that journals are full of publicly funded research.

    It’s unethical and totally outrageous that publicly funded science is even the least bit inaccessible to the public.  We paid for it already, there’s absolutely no valid reason why the publicly funded studies should be charged for.  If public money touches a research project at all, the studies need to be public, end of story.

    Perhaps, if congress ever pulls their heads out of their asses, they can set up an free (gratis) open access online repository for any and all publicly funded research.

    Sorry for the rant, but I’m sick of running into paywalls blocking off studies clearly labeled in the abstracts as funded with grants from the National Science Foundation, or done by research groups at NOAA, or studies done in cooperation with NASA or at JPL.

    If you want to sell your research, do it on your own damn dime!


    1. If you want to sell your research, do it on your own damn dime!

      But note the researchers are not selling it. In fact, the opposite: publishers like Elsevier will apparently make research in their journals freely available, if the authors will pay them for it.

      1.  I believe for Elsevier the cost to pay for your article to be freely available is US$3,000 Needless to say I didn’t choose that option for my latest publication. Neither did I stump up several hundred dollars for any colour graphics.

  3. It seems more like a guide to writing abstracts than reading them, no? Because here’s my guide to reading abstracts: “We did something cool. You’re not part of the club, so you don’t get to know the details. Nyah.”

    1. “We” in this case obviously being the journal publishers, “something cool” being a business model that involves getting money for research someone else funded, and “the club” being a subscription to said magazine database.

      Hey, I’m just trying to help your comment make sense.

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