Research Article: A discourse analysis of the macro-structure, metadiscoursal and microdiscoursal features in the abstracts of research articles across multiple science disciplines

Date Published: October 12, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Sing Bik Cindy Ngai, Rita Gill Singh, Alex Chun Koon, Michael Szell.


The abstract of a scientific research article convinces readers that the article deserves to be read. Abstracts can also determine the success of publications and grant applications. In recent years, there has been a trend of cross-disciplinary collaborations in the science community. Scientists have been increasingly expected to engage not only experts of their own disciplines, but also other disciplines with the scope of interest extending to non-experts, such as policy-makers and the general public. Thus, the macro-structure, metadiscoursal and microdiscoursal features exhibited in scientific article abstracts merit attention. In our study, we examined 500 abstracts of scientific research articles published in 50 high-impact journals across five science disciplines (Earth, Formal, Life, Physical and Social Sciences), and performed quantitative analysis of the move structure as well as use of boosters and linguistic features. We found significant interdisciplinary variations in the move structure, boosters and linguistic features employed by these science disciplines. We confirmed that each science discipline possesses a distinct set of macro-structural, metadiscoursal and formalization features, which contribute to its own unique discipline-specific convention. Understanding and observing the disciplinary rhetorical choices and communication conventions will allow scientists to align the abstracts of their studies with the expectations of the targeted audience.

Partial Text

An abstract of a scientific research article is defined as “a description or factual summary of the much longer report, and is meant to give the reader an exact and concise knowledge of the full article” [1]. The abstract is the first section of an article, and can be regarded as “a stand-alone genre” allowing readers to identify articles of their interest and determine the article’s relevance [2]. An abstract also facilitates readers in determining whether to read the whole article [3]. While an abstract should summarize, one of its main purposes is to arouse interest and persuade readers that the article deserves to be read [4, 5]. Previous research has confirmed that the abstract and title of a research article can be used to dictate whether the article is worth reading [6, 7]. Furthermore, the scientific article abstract is the only section of the article that is readily available on some online databases and therefore, it offers “…a relatively consistent point of entry to scientific publications” [8](p2). Due to the immense number of academic publications in the globalized science field given that scientists are under immense pressure to publish more output, the abstract plays a more prominent role in orienting readers to select useful articles relevant to their area of expertise [9–11]. The abstract should be newsworthy and attract readers’ attention by highlighting the impact or significance, originality, novelty and professional credibility of the research study while also indicating membership of the academic community of that discipline [4].

Prior research on scientific article abstracts has merely focused on one or two aspects such as the rhetorical use of topics in science abstracts [31] and the move structure and use of boosters [4, 14], while our study offers a detailed analysis of a number of aspects exhibited in abstracts as stated above across diverse science disciplines. Since there is limited research on the comprehensive analysis of the science discourse including the move structure, metadiscoursal and microdiscoursal features realized in the rationalization and formalization strategies employed by scientific research article abstracts across multiple science disciplines, we conducted this quantitative study to fill this gap, and in particular, to highlight the interdisciplinary variations with respect to the discourse analysis of abstracts.

Our study examined the science research article abstracts across five science disciplines by focusing on the rhetorical move structure for rationalization, metadiscoursal features such as the use of boosters, and linguistic features adopted in the formalization strategy in the sampled 500 abstracts. Both computational method and qualitative content analysis were employed in this study to provide answers to the research questions.

The abstract of a scientific research article may dictate the success rate of the article being published or a grant application being considered. This is particularly pivotal to researchers of the science community due to the fast-growing competition of publishing and funding acquisition in the past decade [39]. In this study, we provided qualitative and quantitative analyses of the macro-structure, metadiscoursal features such as boosters and microdiscoursal features of scientific research article abstracts from the top 50 ranked journals across multiple science disciplines. Our results have revealed a number of similarities and differences in the features employed by different science disciplines.

In summary, by analyzing the abstracts of scientific research articles sampled from top journals across five science disciplines, our study reveals interdisciplinary variations in the move structure, use of boosters and linguistics features exhibited in abstracts. In terms of academic research, our work contributes to cross-disciplinary investigation of the macro-structure, metadiscoursal and microdiscoursal features from multiple science disciplines. Specifically, we have found that abstracts from each particular science discipline have their distinct move structure, use of boosters and linguistics features. This has implications for our understanding of how these rhetorical choices in abstracts are made by scientists in each distinct discipline in the contemporary institutional context in which competition for publications and grants has exacerbated.




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