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
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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.”

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

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