Metadata Overview Guide Keywords Training Catalogs Links
CIESIN's Guide to FGDC Compliant Metadata

Appendix 4. Writing Abstracts: Guidelines for Metadata Development


This paper provides an overview of the purpose and uses of an abstract; and the guidelines and processes which are helpful in creating abstracts.

An abstract is an abbreviated representation or surrogate of a data or information resource. It contains a concise and significant summary of the resource, and is generally intended to serve as a stand-alone description. Coupled with pertinent bibliographic information such as title, it provides users with supportive information for evaluation of a data or information resource. An abstract with its accompanying citation is a metadata record--a work of scholarship in its own right which can be indexed, organized, accessed and used as an information resource for research purposes.


Purposes and Uses of an Abstract

The 'traditional' purposes and uses of abstracts, either alone or aggregated within an abstract journal or online directory, have changed very little over the centuries that abstracts have been used. The purposes focus on the ability to assemble, access, and evaluate relevant materials more easily and efficiently, using summaries of source items instead of the original items themselves.

Some specific uses include:

  • Serving as a current awareness source, providing rapid and accurate communication of professional knowledge. In some cases abstracts are available prior to release or publication of the source data and information. In other cases, abstracts may be the only information which is accessible.
  • Presenting a condensed and collective view of selected material for retrospective inquiry and access. Abstracts can enhance access to rare or historical data and information.
  • Providing native language summaries of text-based foreign language materials, which helps users to overcome language barriers and to select appropriate materials which can then be fully translated.
  • Providing textual descriptions of oftentimes non-textual information, such as numerical data.
  • Allowing users to access and evaluate a larger volume of source data and information by providing summarized surrogates to search.
  • Allowing users to evaluate individual source materials more easily by providing summaries of key data and information. Evolving Uses While abstracts have not changed much from these traditional purposes, they have evolved into increasingly important tools for retrieving information in an electronic, rather than a print, environment. Over the past several years, abstracting and indexing publications and services have proliferated, both in print and online, which provide abstracts and bibliographic information (a metadata record) about data and information resources. CIESIN's Gateway is one example of an online information service. At the same time, full text indexing has developed to allow rapid searching of these abstracts, using either controlled or natural language terminology, or both.
Thus, abstracts have evolved to serve two additional purposes:
  • serving as a source of terminology which can be used to index and search data and information resources. This is particularly valuable in new or emerging fields of study; and
  • providing the basis of free-text search systems, in lieu of, or as a preliminary step prior to, searching a complete data or information resource.

However, associated with these newer uses of abstracts, difficulties have arisen. As more systems support free-text and other searching techniques, and as distributed systems become interoperable, it becomes increasingly difficult for metadata creators to anticipate what search mechanisms will be used. For example, SEDAC's Gateway provides both controlled vocabulary searching and free-text search capabilities, and provides additional access to directory entries through a World Wide Web server, which supports full text searching and browsing capabilities. This example highlights the challenges in creating metadata which will maximize retrieval using diverse search systems. Since all or part of directory entry text may be used in the search process, metadata writers have an increased responsibility to create quality content, and directory developers must work to insure that the content and the access mechanisms work together to enhance retrieval. To help create this metadata text, it seems appropriate to review the 'traditional' guidelines and processes for writing quality abstracts.


Abstracting Guidelines

The basic principle to keep in mind while writing an abstract, is that the abstract may be the only text that users search and consult, if they choose not to retrieve the original data or information. Remembering this may help the abstractor focus on the key elements and select terminology to be included. Types of abstracts There are two primary types of abstracts and selection of the appropriate type is dependent upon the nature of the material being described, and the intended use of the abstract. The indicative abstract contains generalized statements to convey (indicate) to the user what the described item is about. It is very brief, and does not contain specific findings. Its purpose is to acquaint users with the subject content of the resource and to help them decide whether or not to consult the original source. The informative abstract is generally longer and contains more complete and precise information about the resource, such as scope, objectives, and purpose of the work, methodologies used, key quantitative data, and any conclusions and recommendations. Its purpose is to serve as a true substitute for or surrogate of the resource.

Regardless of the type, an abstract should be:

  • complete in and of itself; that is, it should be able to serve as a stand-alone description which provides a complete picture of the resource at the selected level of specificity;
  • comprehensive in its representation of the key concepts or significant content that are present in the resource;
  • concise, precise, and accurate in its use of terminology;
  • written in a clear, terse, non-critical style; and
  • logically structured in its presentation of the selected data and information.


Data owners, principal investigators, and original authors are often excellent sources of quality abstracts. These individuals have subject expertise and knowledge of the data and information to be described. However, they may not have the objectivity of someone who is less familiar with the data, and may introduce biases or emphases which can hinder retrieval by users in other subject areas.

Professional abstractors, who are trained and experienced in writing objective abstracts

However, these individuals may not have the required subject expertise or a working knowledge of the data and information. While a single individual may not necessarily possess all of the requisite skills and knowledge, quality abstracts can be and are being generated through cooperative interaction among subject specialists, abstractors, principal investigators, data owners, and others. The key is to develop and maintain direct contact or consultation between these individuals.

Other contributors

Other individuals can be excellent information sources while writing abstracts. For example, users of data may publish articles about the data, the methodologies used to collect the data, evaluations of the data quality, etc.
Users of directory access systems can be excellent information sources for creating and refining abstracts. Examining system use statistics, such as search query successes and failures, and tracking user feedback comments will help to create abstracts which are more effective in terms of retrieval.


The Abstracting Process

There are several steps involved in the process of writing an abstract of a data or information resource:
  • Record citation information as required by local rules.
  • Conduct content or subject analysis to determine the key concepts, characteristics, or significant content within the resource which need to be represented. This is the most difficult aspect of the process; the abstractor must represent the multiple viewpoints of diverse users in order to capture all information that may be pertinent and which will serve anticipated user needs. Experience with the user audience and access to feedback studies can help at this stage.
  • Using the abstracting guidelines noted earlier, construct a narrative incorporating all of the elements identified during content analysis.
  • Edit the narrative to remove extraneous language which may hinder effective retrieval. For example, the phrase "This study was conducted in order to measure the vegetative cover in Northern Michigan....." may be shortened to "Vegetative cover in Northern Michigan was measured...."
  • It is likely that while creating the abstract, the abstractor will select or suggest appropriate keywords which will be used for indexing and retrieval. Depending upon the search system to be used, these keywords may need to be used either in a separate keyword field, in the abstract, or in both locations.
  • Complete the metadata record, (fill in the remainder of the directory entry fields) according to local rules. This should include documenting authorship of the abstract, as well as referencing the sources of information used in creating the abstract and other metadata. It should be clear to users where obtain additional detail regarding the metadata.
  • Examine the abstract from a system-wide viewpoint (that is, from the directory or the metadata collection level), for consistent use of terminology within abstracts residing in the same directory or system. Effective retrieval is enhanced by use of similar terms representing similar concepts throughout a directory. Guidance for this may be provided by internal procedure manuals, authority lists, or external standards that have been adopted by the organization. In addition, presentation of information in a logically structured and consistent order within a metadata collection (directory) will allow users to anticipate where information will occur, and to scan directory records more quickly for pertinent information.


Content Creation

When translating concepts and characteristics present in the data into an appropriate textual description, one must make decisions about including and excluding specific information. While not intended as an exhaustive list, these elements should be considered for inclusion in an abstract:
  • Objectives and scope (purpose) - why the data were collected, why the study was conducted, or why the author wrote the paper.
  • Subject area(s) or parameters- what information or data are present in the resource; general description of the data.
  • Methodology - how the data were collected or the work carried out; what the data sources were; and how data were handled or analyzed.
  • Results -- what relationships or correlations were reported; whether the data reported were raw, collected data only; or, if experimental data were included, whether there were single measurements or replications of data; and factors which may have affected the validity, reliability or accuracy of the data.
  • Conclusions- what evaluations, applications, or implications related to the objectives were presented.
  • Other significant supportive information; which is any other information deemed important, including tangential information.

Knowing what to exclude from an abstract is equally important as knowing what to include. Some examples of information to exclude are:

  • General introductory matter that occurs in the resource.
  • Historical summaries and background information related to the data which are widely known to the expected user audience.
  • Supplementary information which is easily obtained elsewhere or which is more appropriately described in a separate field.
  • Uses of the data. An abstract should discuss what the data are about, not what the data are used for, unless specific uses are key to understanding the data.
  • Extraneous information and terminology which are not supportive of the significant content of the resource. Such extraneous information inhibits effective retrieval in a free-text search, and makes it more difficult for users to quickly scan the abstract for key information. Abstracts are not dumping grounds for miscellaneous information. There are various sources which may provide additional guidelines for creating abstracts, such as the American National Standard for Writing Abstracts, ANSI Z39. 14-1979.

This is a useful summary of basic abstracting processes and principles which are applicable regardless of the source or format of the data or information.



Abstracts are stand-alone surrogates or representations of data or information resources. Users may rely on abstracts as primary sources of information, or they may use them as a step in the evaluation and access of source data and information. Applying traditional guidelines and processes for abstract creation within a directory entry, will improve its retrieval performance, particularly in free-text search systems. These guidelines discourage use of an abstract as a 'dumping ground' for information which does not fit elsewhere in a directory record. Additional enhancements include use of consistent terminology, and organization and presentation of information into logical consistent categories. Applied throughout a directory or across cooperating directories, these enhancements will help users retrieve metadata.



American National Standards Institute (ANSI). 1979. American National Standard for Writing Abstracts (Tech. Rep. No. Z39.14-1979). New York, NY: ANSI.

Bhatia, Martha T. and Cheryl J. Burley. 1992 (unpublished). "Expanding The Directory Interchange Format To Accommodate Human Science Metadata." University Center, MI: Consortium for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN).

Burley, Cheryl J. 1993. "Creating Metadata Abstracts: Purpose, Guidelines and Processes." Paper presented at the Catalog Interoperability/NASA Science Internet Workshop, April 27-29, 1993, San Diego, CA. University Center, MI: Consortium for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN).

Cleveland, Donald B. and Ana D. Cleveland. 1983. Introduction to Indexing and Abstracting. Littleton, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.

Collison, Robert L. 1971. Abstracts and Abstracting Services. Santa Barbara, CA: American Bibliographic Center--Clio Press.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).1991. Directory Interchange Format Manual, Version 4.0. Greenbelt, MD: NASA/GSFC National Space Science Data Center (NSSDC).

The Joint Steering Committee for Revision of AACR. 1988. Anglo-American Cataloging Rules- 2nd edition, 1988 revision . Gorman and Winkler, eds. Ottawa: CLA, London: LA, Chicago, IL: ALA.

Pao, Miranda Lee. 1989. Concepts of Information Retrieval. Englewood, CO: Libraries Unlimited, Inc.

Thomas, Sarah E. 1990. Bibliographic Control and Agriculture. Library Trends 38(3)542-561.

Tibbo, Helen R. 1992. Abstracting Across the Disciplines: A Content Analysis of Abstracts from the Natural Sciences, and the Humanities with Implications for Abstracting Standards and Online Information Retrieval . Library and Information Science Research 14(1):31-56.

CIESIN's Guide to FGDC Compliant Metadata

CIESIN Home Page

Need help or information? Contact SEDAC User Services
About SEDAC  Acknowledgments

NASA Home Page SEDAC logo

Copyright © 1997-.
The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York.

Privacy Policy and Important Notices

This site is for review only.
Use data and services at your own risk.