Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Graphical Abstracts

When graphical abstracts first appeared a few years ago, they were exciting as they appeared to provide at a glance information about a research report, all without having to read the abstract, which was also designed to provide quick information about a research report without having to read the report. So now the chain of events is 1)look at the picture 2) if that looks good, look at the title, 3) if that looks good, look at the abstract, 4) if that looks good, read the article. Steps 1 and 2 can be interchanged of course, and in my experience, step 4 can be broken into additional substeps 4a) download the article 4b) print out the article 4c) put the article one of the big stacks of other previously downloaded articles 4d) eventually forget about the article until it is rediscovered at some future date which ransacking the piles looking for an article that I recalled having.

Far more than article titles, their abstracts and even the articles themselves, the quality of the graphical abstracts varies greatly. Look at this one from Macromolecules: It certainly is eye catching with the colored liquids, but what does it tell you about the research? The chemical structure that is drawn on the two pictures obviously cleaves the COOH group, forming CO2 which is then driven to the container on the right[*]. But what happens to the H atom? It appears to transfer to the ketone, so then how does the Na2CO3 on the right become NaHCO3? Why is there an unbalanced equation in the graphical abstract?.

Regardless, all of this represents a lot of thought, not what is supposed to happen with the graphical abstract. I get the feeling that it is one of those "supply the caption" contests where a cartoon is drawn but without a caption.

Or look at this graphical abstract for comparison: Not very helpful on its own, but at least it isn't confusing as the one above is. It's a Ramen spec of whatever polymer was being studied.

Graphical abstracts can be a welcomed addition. I find them vary helpful in communication chemical structures - the picture can quiokly tell about the molecule far quicker than the name. But in many or even most cases, they are not helpful and are a waste of space - electronic, cellulosic or otherwise. The RSS feed from the ACS only has the title and the graphical abstract, so I either have to click through to the abstract (often finding that the article only a short communication without an abstract) or play this guessing game.

[*] I don't know about you, but I think that if my polymerization reaction is generating CO2, I certainly don't want that going on when I am preparing a solid polymer such as the PMMA being formed on the left. How do I know it is PMMA? I read the abstract..

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