Scientific Methods

Saturday, April 01, 2006


Hi Everyone

I had a very useful discussion with the some class members at UWC yesterday. This certainly cleared up a lot of issues for me and I fully report these to everyone.

The first was around the word "Abstract". Firstly it needs to be stated that an Abstract does serve different functions depending on the circumstances. The two most popular uses of an abstract are at the beginning of a research paper and as a preliminary procedure to presenting a conference paper. It should be realised that while it serves these two distinct services, the exact preparation of an abstract is depended on the publishers or conference organizers respectively and this details will vary.

Research Paper Abstract

In this context it is most typically a single page of text from 250 to 500 words and should be viewed as a stand-alone entity that may very often be read in isolation of the main research paper. Abstracts are often circulated in abstraction services and are usually more freely available than journal article which mostly require subscription. An abstract consequently needs to contain enough information to inform whether the research will be useful to researchers looking for references. Preparation of the abstract should be seen as especially critical since its contents are mostly used to source keywords for indexing database search engines. The abstract is consequently a "selling point" to encourage the researcher to acquire the full-text which usually means purchase of either the article or a journal subscription. Generally an abstract will have three distinct sections, background, results and a conclusion. In the background there is a statement of the problem or research question(s) being addressed and a brief indication of the methodology used. Key results need to be presented as the main body of the abstract and the conclusion summarizes the significance of the research and its implications for future research, management etc. It is important that precise results are presented such as quantities and percentages, while statistical significance is less often reported and usually only when a very precise hypothesis or null hypothesis is formulated.

Research Paper abstracts should not be used as a source when making a citation which requires that it is undertaken on the merits of the entire paper. Abstracts usually do not have references other than when used in a taxonomical sense such as when reporting a species e.g. Homo sapiens (Linnaeus, 1758).

Conference Paper Abstract

When submitting your research for presentation at a conference either as an Oral or Poster presentation an abstract is most often required and is usually printed as part of the conference documentation. This allows the screening of the submission for suitability of it to the conference as well as to inform conference'
attendees as to which papers are most useful for them to attend (especially important when multi-session conferences are organized). In the context of a Conference Abstract there is more freedom of expression and results are not necessarily as solidly reported. Certain conference organizers may accept an Abstract with references and some may even encourage this practice, but this remains a rare situation. It is even possible that some conference organizers want "extended abstracts" which may exceed a 1000 words and are used as a mini-publications. Abstracts of conference may also be published in scientific journals.

In the context of or Weblog your abstract for your project more resembles a Conference Abstract that a Research Paper Abstract and hence you have slightly more freedom. For this Weblog consider your Abstract as pre-announcement of your research topic and that it should be between 250 and 500 words and that referencing is optional. It should provide sufficient information to inform what you are going to present as if you were submitting for a conference.


Use of the Google Search Engine

I was somewhat appalled that some of you reported to me that you have been told (prohibited) from using this very useful web resource. This is an archaic and extremely narrow viewpoint that has little place in our information-rich society of today. I can only guess that the premise for this is that Google like other popular search engines returns information that is mostly not peer-reviewed. Using Google and other search engines puts the responsibility of judgment on you the user - so discretion is required when reviewing material returned from a web search engine. There are some simple methods to tighten-up the quality of references sought, one is to ask for only PDFs (Portable Document Files) to be returned. When undertaking research it is important to attempt to use as much material that is peer-reviewed. While it is best to use a library search engines such as ScienceDirect, this is NOT the only source of peer-reviewed material. Wikipedia material is also peer-reviewed and each version of the article is archived (see history tab) and active discussions (discussion tab) are also maintained. Nevertheless, I believe that for research and assignments, use of the Library Journal Literature Search engines should be the foundations of your literature for two reasons, a) its peer-reviewed and b) you should use the hard-copy reference to the journal since a website/url (universal resource locator) remain ephemeral resources that in the long-term are less likely to be accessible that a hard copy version in the future.

To help you assess what references to use and those not to use.

First prize: A hard copy, peer-reviewed publication

Second prize: An electronic peer-reviewed publication(eJournal)

Third prizes: Published Books, Conference Proceedings with higher value being attached to those that are peer-reviewed and a peer-reviewed web resources such as Wikipedia.

Consolation Prizes: Electronic resources such as Encarta, Grey Literature such as Government/NGO Reports and websites of well-established organizations such as the Smithsonian Institute.

Resources to treat with suspicion include Weblogs, Discussion Forums and News Groups. Even newspaper and magazine websites should be viewed with some criticalness (I have found mistakes in National Geographic), but in contrast the BBC news items seem OK, but definitely treat a CNN or our local IOL website articles with a little more caution than say the New York Times. Popular tabloids such as the Sun should not, in general, be considered suitable reference material. As a generalization USA websites tend to be less critical/more superficial in the treatment of reporting research than UK sites, but the reputation of the sources needs to be taken into consideration as first priority. Usually articles on TV programme websites such as SABC are little less rigourous than is desirable.

Your reference list is the soul to your assignments and reveals a lot about how thoroughly you reviewed and prepared the material. A short reference list or a reference list with lots of Internet references raises suspicions. It is also important that when using an Internet reference that you actually record the date and time that it was accessed. I hear you say that I have not done this on this Weblog and in a sense this is an omission, BUT since the Weblog posting is dated and timed you can assume that the site was accessed at that time. I will repeat the beginning of this paragraph by stating that the care in the preparation (especially accuracy) of your reference list is an easily examined and interpreted mechanism for assessing aspects of the quality of your assignment!

I hope this has contributed rather than confused your understanding of these issues, I am afraid the tapestry of life is finer stitched with more shades of pale than might at first be observed.

Dr Richard Knight
Co-ordinator: National Information Society Learnerships - Ecological Informatics
Department of Biodiversity and Conservation Biology
University of the Western Cape
Private Bag X17
Bellville 7535
Phone 27 + 21 + 959 3940
Fax 27 + 21 + 959 1237