In research journals, an abstract is the short summary that precedes the main body of a study. The world of education research has no set rules on what authors can put in these paragraph-length synopses.
As a consequence, some abstracts meticulously outline how many students were tested, what research methods were used, and what results were found, while others simply introduce readers to the studies.
But what if education research took a cue from medicine and began generating abstracts that all followed the same format? Would that make research in the field more user-friendly?
To help answer those questions, the National Research Council convened a workshop in Washington earlier this month. The council, an arm of the congressionally chartered National Academies, recruited discussion panels featuring researchers, journal editors, and translators of education research, such as journalists. (The last category included this reporter.)
The discussion proved that even arcane topics such as research abstracts can generate lively debate. Some scholars worried that imposing a uniform format would favor some kinds of research over others. For instance, a quantitative study might be more likely to generate the kinds of results that fit neatly into a structured shorthand summary than more descriptive, qualitative research.
“My big concern,” said Alicia Waller, an online journal editor from the National Academy of Engineering who is pursuing a Ph.D. in education, “is that this is going to further devalue the work of education because it hides the complexity of what we do.”
Others noted that there may be practical reasons for considering the move. About 1,100 education journals collectively publish more than 20,000 research articles a year, according to a journal article circulated at the Jan. 7 meeting. A more systematic abstracting system might help readers better target the studies they need to read.
“It would be great if we could read everything,” said Robert E. Loden, a researcher from Michigan State University in East Lansing. “But we can’t.”
A version of this article appeared in the January 26, 2005 edition of Education Week