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When I first began thinking about writing my new grant application and research project proposal, I didn’t yet fully realize how important the abstract and summary would turn out to be. Due to the great number of applications (more than four times as many as were likely to be funded) it was necessary to go through a process of preselection to eliminate more or less half of them, based on a 1 page “layman summary” of the project. For almost every kind of peer-reviewed academic endeavor, the abstract serves as the “sales pitch”. Phil Agre’s advice regarding abstracts in “Networking on the Network” is short and straightforward:

Write a good abstract. A bad abstract just announces a question (“topic X is important and I will say something about it”), but a good abstract also answers the question by clearly stating the substance of your new idea or discovery. You may resist putting the bottom line of your paper right there in the abstract; it feels like you’re making the paper redundant. But don’t worry; it only feels that way because you know how the conclusion is arrived at.

I think this advice applies not only to abstracts, but also to all the various other ways you might present your work, especially on-line. Even when reading a book or watching a movie, knowing that e.g. the good guys win in the end, the butler did it, etc. doesn’t really spoil the story, since you still don’t know how it all happens. Scientific research has often been likened to detective work, and one of the most entertaining crime series surely was Columbo: “The plot mainly revolves around how the perpetrator, whose identity is already known to the audience, will finally be caught and exposed by Columbo.” (emphasis mine) Giving away the ending is not a “spoiler” at all, because you don’t yet know “how the conclusion is arrived at”.

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