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From Obstetrics & Gynecology , Los Angeles, Calif. Ms Branagan is now with Chest, Northbrook, Ill.
Context.— The most-read section of a research article is the abstract, and therefore
it is especially important that the abstract be accurate.
Objective.— To test the hypothesis that providing authors with specific instructions
about abstract accuracy will result in improved accuracy.
Design.— Randomized controlled trial of an educational intervention specifying
3 types of common defects in abstracts of articles that had been reviewed
and were being returned to the authors with an invitation to revise.
Mean Outcome Measure.— Proportion of abstracts containing 1 or more of the following defects:
inconsistency in data between abstract and body of manuscript (text, tables,
and figures), data or other information given in abstract but not in body,
and/or conclusions not justified by information in the abstract.
Results.— Of 250 manuscripts randomized, 13 were never revised and 34 were lost
to follow-up, leaving a final comparison between 89 in the intervention group
and 114 in the control group. Abstracts were defective in 25 (28%) and 30
(26%) cases, respectively (P=.78). Among 55 defective
abstracts, 28 (51%) had inconsistencies, 16 (29%) contained data not present
in the body, 8 (15%) had both types of defects, and 3 (5%) contained unjustified
Conclusions.— Defects in abstracts, particularly inconsistencies between abstract
and body and the presentation of data in abstract but not in body, occur frequently.
Specific instructions to authors who are revising their manuscripts are ineffective
in lowering this rate. Journals should include in their editing processes
specific and detailed attention to abstracts.
THE ABSTRACT is by far the most widely read part of a research article.
Much of the time it will be the only part that is read. In view of its importance,
the accuracy of information provided by the abstract is critical.1 The purpose of this study was to test the hypothesis
that specific instructions about abstract accuracy, provided to authors when
manuscripts are being revised, will reduce the number of defective abstracts.
The study was conducted in the main editorial office of Obstetrics & Gynecology, a monthly medical specialty journal. Annual
submissions total 1600 to 1700, and the acceptance rate is 25% to 29%. All
submissions undergo outside review, and all potentially acceptable papers
are screened by a statistician. This journal uses a 4-part structured abstract
for research reports (objective, methods, results, and conclusion).
The study population involved manuscripts reporting original research
returned to the authors after review with an invitation to revise, from August
12, 1994, to December 5, 1995. For purposes of this study, when an eligible
manuscript was to be sent back to the corresponding author, a clerk either
did or did not include a printed sheet of instructions related to preparation
of the abstract.
The instruction sheet, which represented the intervention, stated the
importance of preparing an accurate abstract and identified 3 types of errors
found: (1) inconsistency between data in the abstract and the body of the
manuscript, (2) data or other information in the abstract not found in the
body, and (3) conclusions in the abstract not based on information presented
in the abstract. The author was urged to check his or her own abstract carefully
for these defects.
The assignment to intervention or control group was made from a computer-generated
list of random numbers. To maintain allocation concealment, the clerk making
the assignment was not involved in any aspect of the study, and the records
were kept in her desk until the study was completed and the code broken.
When a revision was received, it was evaluated in our routine manner,
including checking for completeness and for adequacy of responses by an editorial
associate, who then copyedited the manuscript. As part of this process, the
editorial associate scrutinized the abstract, verifying every datum or other
bit of information in the abstract with those in text, tables, and figures.
Any inconsistencies between abstract and body, any data or information in
the abstract but not in the body, or any conclusions not based on information
in the abstract were identified. If the editor confirmed that the abstract
contained 1 or more such discrepancies, making it necessary to either contact
the author for resolution or return the manuscript for additional revision,
the abstract was considered defective for purposes of this study.
The editorial associate and the editor were masked with respect to assignment
to intervention or control group, and there were no instances in which the
author's response unmasked the assignment. At the conclusion of the study,
the assignment code was broken, and the data were tabulated by a different
staff member, the managing editor.
Experience indicated that at least a quarter of abstracts are defective
in 1 or more of the ways described. Based on an assumed reduction from 25%
to 10% with the intervention, and assuming α of .05 and β of .80,
we projected a sample size of 100 in each arm. Because of anticipated losses,
we enrolled 250 manuscripts. The proportion of defective abstracts in the
instructed and uninstructed groups were analyzed by χ2 test.
Of 250 manuscripts enrolled, 119 were assigned to receive the instruction
sheet and 131 to the uninstructed or control group. Thirteen manuscripts were
withdrawn (ie, a revision was not returned) and 34 were otherwise lost to
follow-up analysis, leaving for final analysis 89 in the intervention group
and 114 controls (Figure 1).
One or another of the types of defects was identified in 25 instructed
abstracts (28%; 95% confidence interval [CI], 19%-37%) and in 30 uninstructed
abstracts (26%; 95% CI, 18%-34%), insignificant differences (P=.78). With respect to specific type of defect found, 28 of the 55
defective abstracts (51%; 95% CI, 38%-64%) had inconsistencies with the body
of the manuscript, 16 (29%; 95% CI, 17%-41%) contained data or other information
not found in the body, 8 (15%; 95% CI, 10%-20%) had both types of defects,
and only 3 (5%; 95% CI, 3%-7%) contained inappropriate or unjustified conclusions.
There were no differences apparent between intervention and control groups
with respect to type of defect found.
The proportion of manuscripts withdrawn or otherwise lost to analysis
was large, and the distribution between intervention groups was disproportional.
Of the 13 withdrawals, 4 had been assigned to the instructed groups and 9
to the uninstructed. Of 34 otherwise unavailable, 26 had been assigned to
the intervention group and 8 to the control group. We recalculated the results
with the assumption that none of the 30 withdrawn or unavailable manuscripts
assigned to the intervention would have been returned with defective abstracts,
and that 9 (56%) of the 16 unavailable or withdrawn manuscripts assigned to
control would have had defective abstracts. Under these highly unlikely conditions,
the number of defective abstracts would be 25 (21%; 95% CI, 14%-28%) of 119
in the instructed group and 39 (30%; 95% CI, 22%-38%) of 131 in the uninstructed.
This difference is still not statistically significant (χ2,
2.12; P <.15).
The abstract of a research article, it could reasonably be argued, is
the most important part of the article. It is by far more likely to be read
than any other section of the report. The ubiquitous availability and widespread
use of automated literature search mechanisms, which provide an (often truncated)
abstract, have done nothing but increase this likelihood.
Given the importance of the abstract, there has been surprisingly little
research into its accuracy. Narine and colleagues2
analyzed the quality of abstracts of original research reports published in
1989 in the Canadian Medical Association Journal,
using a special instrument developed specifically for the study. A number
of deficiencies were identified, but none related specifically either to consistency
of data in the abstract and the body or to the basis of data in the abstract.
Roberts and associates3 examined the effects
of peer review and editing on the readability of articles from the Annals of Internal Medicine; evidence was found of a modest increase
in readability in both text and abstract, but accuracy was not addressed.
Goodman and associates4 compared the effects
of peer review and editing on manuscript quality in the same journal; only
1 of 34 items involved the abstract, and it was a very general assessment.
The major development involving abstracts during the last decade has
been the introduction of structured abstracts.5
Although there have been objections to the structured format, based on length
and aesthetic concerns, it has been adopted widely in one form or another,
and there seems to be general acceptance that it is more informative than
the unstructured variety. Some evidence exists that both quality6
and understanding7 may be improved by structured
abstracts. However, there is little reason to suspect that requiring a structure
will lessen the types of discrepancies and omissions we assessed.
The present study was designed to test the effectiveness of an educational
intervention on types of defects in abstracts of papers undergoing revision.
We found that the proportion of abstracts with one or another of 3 defects
was 26% to 28% and—disappointingly—not affected by the simple
intervention tested. The most common defect, present alone or in combination
in 17% of all manuscripts and 65% of defective ones, was inconsistency between
abstract and body.
To determine if the types of defects we identified are regularly recognized
by all journals and dealt with during the copyediting process, much as are
errors in grammar and syntax, we did a small study involving analysis of published
abstracts in 4 journals: American Journal of Obstetrics
and Gynecology (July 1996 issue), Pediatrics
(October 1996 issue), JAMA (July 26, August 2, and August 9, 1995, issues),
and The New England Journal of Medicine (August 29,
September 5, and September 12, 1996, issues). The results of this analysis
of published articles are summarized in Table 1. Surprisingly, the proportion of published abstracts that
we found defective was as high or higher than what we observed in those that
had been reviewed and revised but were not in final copyedited form. This
was a small and not scientifically derived sample, but the findings suggest
that journals do not, as part of their regular copyediting procedures, scrutinize
abstracts for these types of problems.
We conclude that inconsistencies in data between abstract and body and
reporting of data and other information solely in the abstract are relatively
common and that a simple educational intervention directed to the author is
ineffective in reducing that frequency. Until effective interventions are
devised, journals and publishers should incorporate into their copyediting
procedures the practice of detailed and specific verification of all data
and other information in the abstract.
Pitkin RM, Branagan MA. Can the Accuracy of Abstracts Be Improved by Providing Specific Instructions? A Randomized Controlled Trial. JAMA. 1998;280(3):267–269. doi:10.1001/jama.280.3.267
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