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PLOS BLOGS Speaking of Medicine

How to Write a Better Systematic Review Abstract: Guidance is Here

Given that many individuals who search the biomedical literature will only end up reading the abstract (if that!), it’s disappointing that generally biomedical research abstracts are so badly written. This problem of inaccurate and incomplete reporting of abstracts has been studied in depth for randomized trials – for example, the abstracts of such studies frequently report different figures for the numbers of individuals randomized and analysed. Abstracts can also be a factor in the “spinning” of study results in press releases and media coverage, and thus it’s even more important that these parts of a scientific paper are accurate. A previous study published in PLOS Medicine found that 40% of randomized trial abstract conclusions contained “spin” (specific reporting strategies (intentional or unintentional) emphasizing the beneficial effect of the experimental treatment), and that the only factor studied found to be associated with “spin” in press releases was “spin” in the abstract conclusion section.

However, help is now at hand. Following on from a previous effort in which the CONSORT group developed guidance for improving the writeup of randomized trial abstracts , a group involving some of the same researchers now develop similar guidance for the reporting of systematic review abstracts. The guidance, named “PRISMA for Abstracts”, is concise, and easy to use. It is designed to be used in conjunction with the previous guidance for the reporting of an entire systematic review – the PRISMA statement. The guidance for abstracts includes twelve specific recommendations which outline what key pieces of information should be included in the abstract, with the intention of avoiding accidental omission or misinterpretation, and to help readers decide whether the study is relevant to them, and whether to go on and read further. For each piece of guidance, examples from the literature are included along with justification and references. Although much of the guidance may seem simple and straight forward, it’s important to note that readers clearly find such tools useful: at the time of writing, the PRISMA guidance had received over 90,000 views and over 750 citations. Hopefully the guidance on abstract reporting will be similarly valuable: systematic reviewers should take note and use these recommendations when preparing their reports for publication.

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