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Technical Writing: Structured Abstracts Show Their Scaffloding

Author Post
T.R. Girill T.R. 2250 Points

T. R. Girill
Society for Technical Communication/Lawrence Livermore Nat. Lab. (retired)
[email protected]

Technical Writing: Structured Abstracts Show Their Scaffolding

From the Past

Around the start of the 20th century, medical doctors began organizing
their published research reports and articles into four standard
sections: introduction, methods, results, and discussion. This IMRD
structure is common practice throughout science and engineering articles
today because practitioners in nonmedical fields, eager to share the
prestige and influence that medical doctors enjoyed, actively copied
their IMRD format.

Now, in the 21st century, a new trend has started in medical journals
that every science student struggling to draft an effective technical
abstract can beneficially copy. The influential Journal of the
American Medical Association (JAMA) has begun publishing only
'structured abstracts.' Actually, all good science abstracts are
carefully structured, but JAMA now telegraphs that structure to readers
by requiring writers to organize their text under explicit section
headings (so they are really 'structure-revealed' abstracts). It will
probably take years for other scientific fields to copy this structure-
revealed approach officially, as happened before. But meanwhile, the
section headings provide (private) scaffolding that can benefit any
student unsure how to design an effective STEM abstract and then share
it reliably with readers who need to understand it efficiently.

Structure Specifics

JAMA actually uses somewhat different abstract-section headings for
different kinds of article (clinical research vs. topical field review,
for example). But the basic section signals, most relevant to student
project abstracts, are (

*Question--that the reported project tries to answer.
*Findings--the result(s) in one sentence.
*Meaning--concise interpretation of the findings (e.g.,
'among infants undergoing heart surgery, delivering
nitric oxide into the cardiopulminary bypass did
NOT increase ventilator-free survival')
*Importance--relevance of the findings to the clinical practice
(of readers) and the future research (of competing
*Design and participants--
*Main outcomes--
A more fine-grained but still concise repeat
of the 4 topics above, addressed to readers
focused on (and hence searching for) very
specific facets of the project reported.

Benefits for Writers and Readers

These specific headings used to reveal the structure of a JAMA
abstract may later adapt to field-relevant needs if such structure-
revealed abstracts spread across the sciences as IMRD organizing
did for report text. But we don't need to wait for that to reap
significant benefits today.

For Writers

Anyone who struggles to build a thorough but concise technical abstract
can use the JAMA subheads as a drafting guide, an inventory of topics
to address (in that order) while they deploy their (very) limited
budget of words to explain to strangers the work that they performed,
the methods used, and its significance for others. Several iterations,
guided by these subheads as a checklist, are often needed to achieve
a useful yet terse summarization.

For Readers

Limited-English or below-grade-level readers can likewise use the
JAMA abstract subheads as a checklist of text features to search
for as they work through and decode terse STEM abstracts written
by others (professional scientists or fellow students too). Every
clause in a good abstract is contributing something significant,
and the JAMA heads can serve as clues for locating and extracting
that dense but valuable information.

For Professionalization

Imagining the constraints on professional scientists and engineers
as they design the technical text that they share may be hard for
young or inexperienced STEM students. The JAMA abstract subheads
offer an authentic, explicit window on to the information-sharing
challenges that real-life clinicians, researchers, and other STEM
professionals face as part of their working lives.

[To help your students view technical writing text engineering, see
For more on crafting science and engineering abstracts, see]


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