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Communications of the ACM

Letters to the Editor

Make Abstracts Communicate Results

Letters to the Editor


Hermann Maurer's viewpoint "Does the Internet Make Us Stupid?" (Jan. 2015) made an important point in its first two sentences, that no one reads full papers anymore. Taking it to heart, ACM should make its publications communicate more effectively by insisting abstracts include a summary of results and key concepts, communicating important information even when readers skip or skim the rest. Maurer also said Internet technology is to blame for superficial reading habits, but I recall when as a graduate student I stopped reading full articles in AAAS Science, focusing on just the abstracts to decide whether or not to continue. That was the late 1970s, well before the rise of the Internet, so I cannot blame the Internet. I could, however, rely on abstracts in Science because they were so good at summarizing results.

As my focus turned to engineering, I stopped reading Science and concentrated on IEEE and ACM publications. However, many engineering papers, and ACM-sponsored conference proceedings and journals in particular, include notably unenlightening abstracts. It is as if the authors intend to hide their results to force the reader to read the entire paper or at least skip to the final subhead, usually something like "Conclusions and Future Work," to discover whether the results are even interesting. The goal, it appears, is not so much to transmit information but force the reader to appreciate the author's pages of laboriously composed prose.


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