More is more (when it comes to abstracts)

In the summer of 2013, I was coordinating a class meant to prime incoming graduate students on what it takes to succeed in graduate school. One session dealt with writing good abstracts. You have heard the usual advice: keep it short and simple, avoid jargon, write it for a general reader, etc.

I thought that it would be fun to test whether following this type of advice increases readership (citations). After a few months, I pitched this idea to my friend James Evans, and we decided to try it out with the help of Cody Weinberger, an undergraduate student in my laboratory.

We collected about 1M abstracts from 8 disciplines, and we tested the impact of following the usual advice on citations, once accounted for obvious factors such as age of the article, journal where it was published, etc. To our surprise, we found that following some of the most common suggestions leads to a significant decrease in citations!

You can read the results here:
Cody J. Weinberger, James A. Evans, Stefano Allesina
Ten Simple (Empirical) Rules for Writing Science
PLoS Computational Biology, 2015


The short article starts with a quote from Boyle’s “Proemial Essay”. Robert Boyle was one of the main proponents of the use of “modern” scientific articles to disseminate science (i.e., instead of books). Amusingly, while describing the advantages of this approach, Boyle already states some guidelines on how the essays should be written: we’ve been told how should we write our science for at least 350 years!

Update: The Chronicle of Higher Education features a Q&A with Cody.