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March 24/31, 1999

The Need for Concrete Improvement in Abstract Quality

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliation: Dr Winker is Deputy Editor of JAMA.

JAMA. 1999;281(12):1129-1130. doi:10.1001/jama.281.12.1129

The abstract is, aside from the title, the most frequently read and most easily accessed portion of an article reporting original biomedical research. The abstract provides an irreplaceable resource for busy clinicians, researchers, and authors searching for pertinent material in the source journal or in computerized databases. JAMA began publishing abstracts with articles on January 7, 1956, predating MEDLINE by a decade; other journals followed suit.1 Structure was not added to JAMA abstracts until 19912 when the structured format developed by Haynes et al3 and tested4 and evolved5 in Annals of Internal Medicine with the help of Edward J. Huth, MD, then Annals' editor, was adopted. Reading the abstract has never been a substitute for reading the article: crucial details of the study, such as patient selection and follow-up, definition of outcome measures, and study limitations, receive short shrift in the terse style of the abstract.6,7 A simple and straightforward abstract may obscure a more complex (and realistic) story within the text. These limitations aside, however, the abstract provides the reader with an efficient summary of the study that facilitates scanning many articles to find those that are the most pertinent to the reader's interests and needs.