How To Research: Just Reading The Abstract Isn’t Good Enough

Abstracts are a short summary covering the background, methods, results and conclusions of a scientific paper. While abstracts are easy to find, sometimes they are the only information from a paper that’s accessible. It’s important that our knowledge is accurate, as this informs our purchasing decisions and our understanding of skin care.

We assume that the information in abstracts is accurate…right? Well, not all the time.

A study examined six peer-review journals and found inaccuracies in 18% to 68% of the abstracts.

Two conditions were considered inaccuracies in this study:

The first kind of inaccuracy was when data was mentioned in the abstract that differed from the data contained in the full paper – rounding of numbers weren’t considered inaccurate if the full paper contained the correct number.

The second kind of inaccuracy was when data was mentioned in the abstract, but couldn’t be found in the full paper itself.

Keep in mind this study only looked at numerical inaccuracies. It’s entirely possible to have factual inaccuracies, where the abstract states or exaggerates a conclusion that the data from the full paper disagrees with.

Another study examining dermatology journals found varying levels of quality among abstracts.

It’s worthwhile to take the time to read the full paper, especially since researchers take the time to expand on their conclusion in the ‘Discussion’ section as well as point out the weaknesses or gaps in their paper. You can also glean important information such as whether or not the subjects in the study are representative of you. If the language or information is daunting, focus on annotated charts and graphs as these can provide a clearer idea of the results.

This also extends to references! If a researcher references another paper they often try to summarize the results, but sometimes in the simplification they can leave out vital information.

For example, while I was researching the skin benefits of consuming green tea and its extracts on human skin, I came across a cosmetic dermatology textbook which cited a 2 year long study that showed that green tea extracts were beneficial for reducing photodamage and wrinkles. Great! I thought.

Once I pulled up the actual reference the actual conclusion was that at the end of the 2 years there was no difference in the group that received the green tea extract, and those that did not. At the 6 month and 12 month point they did find an improvement in the group that received the extracts – for overall sun damage as well as erythema (skin redness) and telangiectasias (broken capillaries), but no differences in wrinkling.

I’m sure the textbook author had not intended to misconstrue the research, and it was perhaps editorial oversight – but it also highlights why if you find something that strikes your interest, you need to spend the extra time and read it in greater depth.

OK, But What If I Don’t Have Library Access?

There are online journals that provide open-access to the public:

The Cochrane Library – Skin
Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology
International Journal of Cosmetic Science
Archive of the Journal of Cosmetic Science
Clinics in Dermatology
Cosmetic Dermatology
Journal of Cosmetics, Dermatological Sciences and Applications
Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology
Dermatology and Therapy
Journal of Clinical and Experimental Dermatology Research
Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology
Nature: Communications

There are also databases that catalogue open-access papers:

Google Scholar
Directory of Open Access Journals
Highwire – Stanford University

Research can be incredibly confusing and non-conclusive, but that’s also what makes it so interesting and dynamic!

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  • Sophie

    I love everything about this post, so informative and it brings out my inner-research geek. Thanks so much for this!

    Sophie – eselle x

    • Stephen

      Thanks @disqus_WisHECKDrD:disqus and congrats on your graduation! 🙂

  • paigedeg

    Such an important post! Especially for bloggers who are educating themselves, loved this!

  • Saffron

    Thank you for sharing this! I think it’s so important to remain critical. Just because something has been published doesn’t mean it’s flawless! Too often research is misunderstood, taken out of context or exaggerated.

  • Cindy

    This is so wonderful — abstracts, while necessary, can be misleading if you don’t read the entire paper!