Thursday, 11 October 2012

Top tip: pay attention to the abstract!

As we discovered in Week 2, an essential addition to any reputable research paper (and the third element of the 18 Things framework) is a well-written abstract. By capturing the essential qualities of a text in a concise and structured manner, the abstract can invaluably assist information-gatherers in their task.

How many journal articles can you gather, read, and consider in one hour? If you're like me, then probably just one or two (depending on prior familiarity with the subject.) Usefully, Emerald allows users to view full, structured abstracts for every document in their list of search results (just click the "Show all abstracts" link in the top-right corner.) I find this to be incredibly helpful, allowing me to process entire pages of articles swiftly by scanning through the basic ideas and arguments of each piece. Articles which lack a full abstract tend to be insubstantial, and not very useful. If an article is going to be of interest to my research topic (and therefore worth downloading) then I can usually find out in seconds by reading the abstract.

As far as I can tell, this feature is actually unique to Emerald. Google Scholar and ACM Digital Library only display the first ~50 words of the abstract or introduction on their search results page, whilst LISA (Library and Information Science Abstracts) will only offer a 25-word snippet unless you click for the full 'Citation/Abstract' page (or open the 'Preview' pop-up window) for each result. Can we measure our information-gathering-efficiency according to the number of clicks and hyperlinks it takes to access the information we actually need?

Obviously you can't limit your search to Emerald; seasoned information-gatherers know to make use of a wide variety of different online resources for finding articles. There's a lot out there, so save yourself some time and make the most of what the author has helpfully provided. Have a quick read through the abstract and decide if the article is actually relevant to your study (before filling up your desktop with dozens of unread .PDFs.)

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