April 2019 Limerick Project

In the Abstract

“In writing a lab report’s abstract,
Report data found, in form exact.
Descriptions avoid,
Lest your reader’s annoyed:
Be succinct so the details don’t distract.” 

The April 18 limerick returns to the topic of scientific writing, looking at in detail at the first section of a lab report, which is called the abstract.  “Lab report” is a shorthand for “laboratory report,” a common assignment in undergraduate science coursework. Via these assignments, science students report on experimental work completed in the laboratory setting and gain experience with the conventions and challenges of academic scientific writing.   

“In writing a lab report’s abstract,/
Report data found, in form exact.”    

An abstract is a brief summary of a scientific document’s key findings.  (It is worth first an acknowledgement that it’s non-intuitive to think of this concrete type of writing via a word that often means anything but concrete!  However, the Latin term abstractus is cited as denoting a variety of meanings, and two that are particularly pertinent here are “extracted” and “summarized.”) 

When I teach lab courses, I emphasize that students should highlight the key experimental data obtained as clearly as possible, in a given abstract, so that readers can decide as easily as possible whether or not the larger report is worth the considerable time investment.  

Lab reports are not identical to scientific journal articles, but they are an introduction to writing in that challenging, information-dense format, which was previously discussed in the 11 April 2019 limerick.  As I mentioned there, it’s simplest to leave writing the abstract until the end, as an understanding of “what the key findings are” emerges during the report-writing process itself.   

“Descriptions avoid,/ Lest your reader’s annoyed:/
Be succinct so the details don’t distract.” 
Along the same lines, the abstract is not a place for creative writing.  “Annoyed” is probably too strong a true descriptor for a potential reader, but the last line sums up the key idea: an abstract should point directly to the main findings of an experiment, rather than try to tell the story of how those findings were obtained.  The remainder of the report or article provides space for placing the work in context, describing the experimental details, and fully explaining the implications of these key findings.