FIPR colleagues and I have written a response to the recent Cabinet Office consultation on the proposed Framework for e-Government. We’re not very impressed. Whitehall’s security advisers don’t seem to understand phishing; they protect information much less when its compromise could harm private citizens, rather than government employees (which is foolish given how terrorists and violent lobby groups work nowadays); and as well as the inappropriate threat model, there are inappropriate policy models. Government departments that follow this advice are likely to build clunky, expensive, insecure systems.
Having just finished another pile of conference-paper reviews, it strikes me that the single most common stylistic problem with papers in our field is the abstract.
Disappointingly few Computer Science authors seem to understand the difference between an abstract and an introduction. Far too many abstracts are useless because they read just like the first paragraphs of the “Introduction” section; the separation between the two would not be obvious if there were no change in font or a heading in between.
The two serve completely different purposes:
Abstracts are concise summaries for experts. Write your abstract for readers who are familiar with >50% of the references in your bibliography, who will soon have read at least the abstracts of the rest, and who are quite likely to quote your work in their own next paper. Answer implicitely in your abstract experts’ questions such as “What’s new here?” and “What was actually achieved?”. Write in a form that squeezes as many technical details as you can about what you actually did into about 250 words (or whatever your publisher specifies). Include details about any experimental setup and results. Make sure all the crucial keywords that describe your work appear in either the title or the abstract.
Introductions are for a wider audience. Think of your reader as a first-year graduate student who is not yet an expert in your field, but interested in becoming one. An introduction should answer questions like “Why is the general topic of your work interesting?”, “What do you ultimateley want to achieve?”, “What are the most important recent related developments?”, “What inspired your work?”. None of this belongs into an abstract, because experts will know the answers already.
Abstract and introduction are alternative paths into your paper. You may think of an abstract also as a kind of entrance test: a reader who fully understands your abstract is likely to be an expert and therefore should be able to skip at least the first section of the paper. A reader who does not understand something in the abstract should focus on the introduction, which gently introduces and points to all the necessary background knowledge to get started. Continue reading How (not) to write an abstract