39

My abstracts starts with three specific questions that my proposed research will answer. But when my friend saw this, he said: "I will never start an abstract with questions, and I will never read this paper if it starts with questions."

Is it wrong to start your abstract with a question sentence?

Edit:

My friend and I are in the field of Information and CS (broadly speaking). He added that only some very prominent scholar dare to write such abstract.

  • 40
    I would expect your friend to miss some important studies when not reading papers (or only your paper?) in case their abstracts start with a question. – Mark Nov 22 '17 at 7:44
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    @NathanS. Colons don't begin a new sentence, so Alan's friend won't read your paper. – David Richerby Nov 22 '17 at 10:50
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    If your field of study is English literature, you could write a paper about this very topic, and the abstract would read "Is it wrong to start the abstract of your paper with a question? In this work we argue that it is not a good idea to do so." – Ink blot Nov 22 '17 at 14:02
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    If a newspaper headline asks a question, then the answer is No, and no it's not worth reading... en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Betteridge%27s_law_of_headlines Maybe the same would be applied to your abstract (see other answers for how to reword and resolve the issue) – Philip Oakley Nov 22 '17 at 16:55
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    I see nothing wrong in starting an abstract with a question. In fact, I think quite a few abstracts would be improved by such a start. – Andreas Blass Nov 22 '17 at 23:03
48

As others said, this is a matter of style of convention and taste.

Compare these two abstracts:

Does every compact Hausdorff space admit a compatible metric? In this work we show that the answer is positive exactly in the case where the space is second-countable.

And

We show that a compact Hausdorff space admits a compatible metric if and only if it is second-countable.

Both have the same content, but only one of them feels like it actually invites you to read the paper. It starts by asking you a question, which to some extent is intriguing, and then provides you with a complete answer.

Papers should be something that is read by people. As such, the writing style should not be dry. I'm not saying that you should go overboard with elaborate writing and storytelling devices, but sprucing up your writing a little bit using questions or explanations is a good thing; it can help to make your paper much more palatable.

As for your friend's comment? Well, if he can judge the content of a paper by the first sentence of the abstract, I'm sure that he can skip the abstract altogether and just judge a paper by the title. I mean, why waste time reading two sentences?

  • 14
    +1 for "Papers should be something that is read by people.". Too many authors try to sound so smart that reading their paper becomes cumbersome. I like the Da Vinci mantra: "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication." or as Einstein put it in teaching terms "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough". – CodeMonkey Nov 22 '17 at 13:03
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    Explaining something simply doesn't mean that everyone will understand it. It means that for a complex topic you don't add any unnecessary complexity. A lot of simple writing can be completely decoupled from the contents. Simple writing means: 1. Avoiding long convoluted sentences. 2. Not unnecessarily using archaic or "educated" sounding terminology. 3. Explaining special notation. 4. Not using the passive voice to sound more formal. BTW people that want to seem smart often produce the opposite impression – CodeMonkey Nov 22 '17 at 14:26
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    Maybe I'm just getting too old, but the opening question gives the whole thing a feeling of cheap veneer of the popular science style documentary sort. It's as though the author is imagining themselves as Marcus du Sautoy or Jim Al-Khalili. It feels rather patronizing, to be honest. If I'm reading an abstract it's because my time is short and I want to determine whether or not to read the whole thing - I don't want to wade through fluff and showmanship. – J... Nov 22 '17 at 18:00
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    @Inkblot I was a little confused by your answer because of the way you use "prosaic". But I think I have found the problem. As you can see here: en.wiktionary.org/wiki/prosaic prosaic means commonplace and is the opposite of poetic. Therefore your second example is the one that is prosaic. However, your confusion is not a new one, because Molière already put a comedic turn on it by having the title character of "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme" discover, to his astonishment, that he had been speaking in prose his whole life. – Robert Furber Nov 22 '17 at 20:32
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    @JiK My thoughts exactly. "Does every compact Hausdorff space admit a compatible metric? The answer will surprise you!" – JollyJoker Nov 23 '17 at 13:19
62

As an author, you can choose different styles for abstracts. As far as I know, the most interesting and shortest abstract ever was written in this paper, Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement? by M V Berry, N Brunner, S Popescu and P Shukla.

Abstract

Probably not.

  • 7
    If the asker's friend refuses to read question-abstracts, surely they'll reject question-titles, too? ;-) – David Richerby Nov 22 '17 at 10:48
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    This is awesome! – skymningen Nov 22 '17 at 11:31
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    That is probably the best abstract I've ever read. – Polygnome Nov 22 '17 at 11:31
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    The mathematician Barry Simon once wrote an abstract like this: Abstract: Yes, of course. But we give examples too. – Kimball Nov 22 '17 at 17:38
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    @Polygnome, yes, competing with this: ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/1101812 – Rmano Nov 22 '17 at 20:38
40

"I will never start an abstract with questions, and I will never read this paper if it starts with questions."

These are your friend's personal opinions regarding abstracts.

If you take a moment to read a cursory sample of published research abstracts, how many of them have a question? Isn't the purpose of research to answer questions?

As for your friend, politely agree to disagree. You decide what will be published.

Focus on whether or not your abstract effectively summarizes your body of research and its greater importance to the field. This is the purpose of the abstract, whether or not you choose to use a question or not is a matter of style and the input from your co-authors, editors, and confidants.

Remember that this is your work, not theirs.

15

Just some strayed thoughts:

Be cautious with reviewers who give overly dogmatic "rules of thumb" about writing. A few of those rules are reasonable and legitimate, the majority are either learned practices and unsupported or outdated conventions.

To me (hint: opinion), starting a paragraph with a question is cliche. 1) I can understand the use of it in other literature, but it's overly stylized in scientific writing. 2) People usually start reading the abstract because they are attracted by your title. There isn't really a strong need to use another bait. 3) The first part of the abstract is usually used to set the stage by presenting some background or key information to bring the readers up to speed. Starting with a question can throw some experienced readers off. 4) Most of the time, the follow up "answer" to that question tend to use very similar words, ending up wasting word count. 5) I work in biomedical field and the general style is to state the research question at the end of the background. Starting the same paragraph with a similar question would be, like the point above, wasteful.

For these reasons, I'd suggest try two versions with different starting style and all else equal, do another poll with some friends and colleagues and see how that goes.

  • 4
    The usual collection of rules should be prepended with: "Follow these rules, except when you shouldn't." But you do have to learn, understand, and use the rules before you can know when to relax or ignore them! – aeismail Nov 22 '17 at 20:21
3

Hmm interesting... I think there is two layers to this question, one technical and one personal:

Direct Answer: you write a paper to be a source/voice for a very specific topic. If I'm reading your paper, I generally want to see a good topic, problem statement, solution/conclusion and future work. I want your paper to "knock me out" with the latest research findings for a very specific topic. The last thing I want to see is your thought process along the way. Hope you see the point here.

Researchers Dilemma (I dare you to....): As a researcher, you have a personal trait, which is think out of the box. Just because someone suggested something, it doesn't mean that, "I will prove him/her wrong". This will waste your time, and energy. Then the question becomes when to follow/break the rules, well thats "the dilemma"; and you need to know the logic behind these rules/styles/approaches before you want to break them.

2

A question often summarizes the whole thing in a very short and precise way. Some books even are titled with a question. So why not? The only drawback is, that because of its shortness, simply throwing a question in is sometimes perceived as somewhat rude. Depending on your theme and audience that may be intentional, or maybe better avoided. I personally prefere precision and shortness over lengthy explanations.

1

I wouldn't say it's wrong, it just sets out the tone in a more informal manner than a clear statement of intention would make.

You could always just reword it and put forth that there is a question out there that you are setting out to answer (or attempt to).

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