It’s All Abstract …

Piet Mondriaan

I recently got through reviewing a pile of papers for a conference. Sadly, there weren’t any gems in the pile – but there were several instances of of an unfortunate figure of style, all too common in paper abstracts – and one which I try to both avoid myself, and to guard my (PhD and otherwise) students about:

“Traditional ____ does ____ but at the expense of ___ and ____. This paper presents an approach at ____ which attempts to accomplish ____ by employing recent advances in ____”

First of, it doesn’t bode particularly well for the work presented, if the only way for the authors to value it is to be “putting down” the work of others.

But saying “Traditional ____ does ____ but at the expense of ___ and ____” has another couple of major problems. As does “an approach at ___ which attempts to …”.

Timelessness

Words such as “traditional” carry a notion of time “up until now”. “Traditional” (and its derivatives) has the same problem as the equally unfortunate “Recent advances in ___” etc., in that they imply that the content of the paper can be properly interpreted only within a specific temporal context: reading the paper 10 years hence will make what was described as “recent advances in ____” be ancient — and “Traditional ____” is likely to have long since been replaced

Published scientific results should be timeless – universally valid, or at least based on universal principles and draw (universally valid) conclusions.

Relevance

If that which is described as “Traditional ____” is something solving an industrially relevant problem, then the author better be 100% sure that that’s what is actually used – something which, depending on the domain, may be difficult to do – least it is extremely easy to tear down the argument with simply “but that’s why nobody actually does that, out in the real world” – which is a great way for the authors to ensure that whatever they present in the paper, will not be taken seriously.

This is, by the way, also a problem purely within the academic realm: when a paper starts out by asserting something which might have held true in the past – but, which is no longer the case.

Do or do not – there is no try

Finally,…a paper which “attempts to accomplish ____” – that’s all very fine, but is also terribly uninteresting. At least, when reading an abstract for a paper, I want to know what it accomplishes, not what it attempts to accomplish without any conclusions.

If the paper presents an attempt at something, which succeeds, then the success is interesting – not the attempt. I want to read about that in the abstract.

Of course, it is perfectly fine for a paper to document an attempt to try something which fails – if, that is, the reasons for failing are analyzed and documented. In fact, a paper which documents “blind alleys” is incredibly interesting and scientifically significant. But in that case, the paper should be upfront about just that, also in the abstract.

Featured image is a painting by Piet Mondrian, and was sourced from Wikimedia.org

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