Scientists: ignore the rules on writing to get citations

A study suggests that short and clear abstracts are associated with lower than expected citations

May 28, 2015
Person pushing overloaded shopping trolley
Source: Getty

More is more when it comes to writing the abstract of a scientific paper if a researcher wants it to be cited, despite advice to the contrary, according to research.

Three academics from the University of Chicago have put to the test the advice given to scientists on how write an abstract to score citations.

The researchers found that short and clear abstracts lead to a lower than expected citation count, most likely because of the way that scientists use internet search engines to find papers to reference.

This runs counter to well-known rules that researchers are often given for writing science, which include keeping abstracts short, using plain language instead of jargon, and constructing compact sentences in the present tense with few adjectives and adverbs.

The researchers, led by Cody Weinberger, a research assistant at Chicago, analysed the features of more than 1 million abstracts published over 17 years in eight disciplines, alongside citation data and 10 common rules for writing science.

The analysis took into account factors that could have affected the citation count, including the age of the article, the number of authors and references, and the journal it was published in.

“We have found that – when it comes to abstracts – ‘more is more’ despite clear and abundant advice to the contrary,” say the researchers in an editorial for Plos Computational Biology.

“Surprisingly, half of the typical suggestions – including those that are most common, about brevity and clarity – are associated with a significant decrease in citations,” they add.

Short sentences benefited only papers in mathematics and physics, and using more, rather than fewer, adjectives and adverbs led to higher than expected citations. Abstracts with fewer, rather than more, easy words also scored more citations.

“The use of the present tense is beneficial in biology and psychology, while it has a negative impact in chemistry and physics, possibly reflecting differences in disciplinary culture,” the authors say.

The researchers say that the results are likely explained by the fact that scientists use search engines to find the right articles to cite. “Longer, more detailed, prolix prose is simply more available for search.”

holly.else@tesglobal.com

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

POSTSCRIPT:

Article originally published as: Science: never use one word when three will do (28 May 2015)

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

United Nations peace keeper

Understanding the unwritten rules of graduate study is vital if you want to get the most from your PhD supervision, say Kevin O'Gorman and Robert MacIntosh

David Parkins Christmas illustration (22 December 2016)

A Dickensian tale, set in today’s university

Eleanor Shakespeare illustration (5 January 2017)

Fixing problems in the academic job market by reducing the number of PhDs would homogenise the sector, argues Tom Cutterham

Houses of Parliament, Westminster, government

There really is no need for the Higher Education and Research Bill, says Anne Sheppard

poi, circus

Kate Riegle van West had to battle to bring her circus life and her academic life together