Abstracts for monographs?

There is currently a debate on the role of abstracts in scholarly publishing. The Scholarly Kitchen blog, for example, has called for a reconsideration: “Providing the abstract freely to anyone who wants to use it has become a habit, probably a leftover of our print and “information scarcity” mindset — with this mindset, it seems harmless to promulgate abstracts as widely as possible, and doing so seems like a way to battle scarcity. But in a networked and “information abundance” world, is carelessly syndicating a valuable substitute for articles a habit we need to sustain? And how long can we afford to continue it?” (20 April 2011).

My own view is less sceptical. In fact, rather than considering a restriction of the role of abstracts, I think there is a case of extending it. Traditionally, abstracts have been the preserve of journal publishing. But what about scholarly monographs? There are signs that the status of monographs as a research output might be on the rise. Whereas research evaluation systems in the past have tended to discriminate in favour of journal papers and against monographs (the UK’s now defunct Research Assessment Exercise being an example), contemporary systems are moving towards a more catholic stance. Not for nothing have Thomson Reuters announced the development of a book citation index.

In this context, there is surely a need for a concise way to summarise monographs. Up to now, this role has tended to be fulfilled by the publisher’s blurb. Blurbs, however, are written with two functions in mind: (a) to indicate the book’s contents and contribution; and (b) to help market the book. That second function, though perfectly legitimate, tends to make the resultant text inappropriate for bibliographical purposes.

There is, therefore, a case for providing each monograph with two types of ‘meta-description’ – a blurb and an abstract. With this in mind I have, for the launch publication in the Creative Writing Studies imprint, generated both types of text. The title in question is Rethinking Creative Writing by Stephanie Vanderslice.

Here is the blurb: “In this passionate, iconoclastic, survey of Creative Writing as an academic discipline, Stephanie Vanderslice provides a provocative critique of existing practice. She challenges enduring myths surrounding creative writing – not least, that writers learn most from workshops. Through case studies of best practice from America and elsewhere, Vanderslice provides a vision of change, showing how undergraduate and postgraduate programs can be reformed to re-engage with contemporary culture”.

And here is the abstract: “Creative writing as a discipline is a victim of its own success. The discipline needs now to demythogize and revitalize itself. Undergraduate and graduate programs need to be further differentiated. Programs over-reliant on the traditional creative writing workshop, with its focus on craft and on building community, are ill equipped to prepare students for the new realities of the creative economy. Programs need not only to improve the workshop experience of students, but also employ a more diverse, outward-looking, outcomes-oriented pedagogy and to make a more direct contribution to the development of a literate society. Much can be learnt from good practice – including distinctive and visionary programs – developed on both sides of the Atlantic and in Australia”.

I should add that the abstract is accompanied by a list of key terms, as follows:  creative writing; literacy; pedagogy;  programs; reflective; reform; teaching; visionary; workshop.

This is very much a policy-in-development. I’d very much welcome your views on the need for, and functions of, abstracts for books (and, in particular, the question of what would be the ideal length for an abstract for a book).

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6 Responses to “Abstracts for monographs?”

  1. I can’t think why continuing to publish abstracts would be a bad thing. A concise summary with keywords would fit perfectly with current SEO and similar practices in digital media.

  2. Anthony, I don’t know much about the technical details of SEO, but keywords are certainly part of the equation. It seems to me that abstracts, which boil down articles to their main points and topics, is a natural fit for a searchable database. Academia is the target audience, and then one could drill down even more into discipline-focused databases. Google Scholar comes to mind as does JSTOR and Project MUSE. Relevancy in results is always an issue with search engine algorithms; I imagine the specificity of most journal articles makes that less problematic for scholarly research if the search terms are accurate.

    That said, I see that the Scholarly Kitchen rightly points out that abstracts may be unnecessary now that entire articles are equally searchable, via these same databases and search engines. And rightly points out that long-form abstracts lead to lazy research — perhaps a more abbreviated form would be more useful in this age of instant online results in terms of locating applicable articles while forcing researchers to read the actual articles for citeable information.

  3. […] below dealing with genre (11 March), workflow (13 January), design (16 December 2010), abstracts (7 June), and enhanced p-books (20 April). The purpose of this post is to synthesise these ideas using RCW […]

  4. […] Elsewhere on this blog I have written about the benefits of providing abstracts for monographs. It is pleasing that this book provides abstracts for each chapter. These are used to good effect on the publishers’ website, which provides potential readers with admirably full information. […]

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