Rejected by JAMA in March 2013.

To the Editor:

JAMA’s laudable effort to upgrade medical abstracts [1] represents only a syntactic improvement in communicating quantitative results. It was proposed by editors faced with reviewing multitudes of abstracts submitted to research meetings.

Of greater use to JAMA’s general medical readership, and especially to the innumerable members of the public who read JAMA abstracts online via the Pubmed system, would be a graphical flow chart describing each study’s design. Instead of syntactic sugar, this would provide at-a-glance understanding of what is often the most innovative part of a study.

Such charts are now familiar to readers, having been part of JAMA’s instructions to authors since at least 1998 [2]. However, because they are often laden with details [3], they are themselves candidates for abstraction.

Although PubMed already supports graphics in its abstract pages, authors would be better specifying these proposed abstract-flow-charts declaratively, e.g. with an XML data description language. PubMed could then, someday, support searches based on details of study design, thereby fulfilling the hope expressed during JAMA’s introduction of structured abstracts in 1991: to “allow more precise computerized literature searches” [4].

[1] Bauchner H, Henry R, Golub RM. The restructuring of structured abstracts: adding a table in the results section. JAMA. 2013; 309: 491-492.   PubMed 23385278

[2] Anonymous. JAMA instructions for authors. JAMA. 1998; 279: 69-72.

[3] Paradise JL, Bluestone CD, Colborn DK, Bernard BS, Smith CG, Rockette HE, Kurs-Lasky M. Adenoidectomy and adenotonsillectomy for recurrent acute otitis media: parallel randomized clinical trials in children not previously treated with tympanostomy tubes. JAMA. 1999; 282: 945-53.

[4] Anonymous. Structuring abstracts to make them more informative. JAMA. 1991; 266: 116-117.

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Published on January 29, 2018