The Art of Writing Abstracts

I have never been interested in academia and research. I always felt research and academia, or a majority of what people publish is just to fill their profiles with the number of publications. When I think about research, I always think about doing research as something groundbreaking. I remember telling colleagues (and I still do) to read the Page Rank algorithm [link, link 2] publication that formed the backbone of Google search in the beginning. I wanted every research or publication to be something like Page Rank.

I am still someone who believes that one should publish things that move science forward, and one should not write publications just to fill their profile with a list of publications. But at the same time, my idea of research has also changed, that not every research should be groundbreaking, and not every research is a leap like Page Rank, but science like everything else is incrementally built and adds up over time, with occasional groundbreaking leaps.

This idea about research has left me not to write, and publish things we have done. But last year my colleague pushed me to start writing abstracts on the work we have done in interoperability in healthcare. How we included FHIR standards in health systems and the challenges we faced in doing that. The development of the open data portal to share raw datasets. The development and implementation of a COVID health information system purely as an open-source project using support from university students.

They were not groundbreaking in any way, but the idea was for people who faced similar challenges like us to read, allowing them to move forward without them having to learn things the hard way and make more progress than we did.

Writing abstracts is an art, and the ability to compress your thoughts into a 150, 200, or 300-word abstract, four or five paragraphs is not easy and not something anybody can do straight away. Just like how we struggled to write a 140 character tweet, but you can’t invent terms or drop letters like you did when writing 140 character tweets.

I remember when I first started, I complained and being me even argued with my colleague that we needed at least 500 words to write a proper abstract. So we can put all our ideas into it. But my colleague who has more experience in writing than me convinced me that it’s doable, even though I was frustrated and annoyed.

With support from her, after multiple iterations, I was able to write a decent 250 abstract, which I then submitted to the College of Health Informatics sessions in 2023. I wasn’t even sure it was a good abstract because I felt I had more things to say. However, only after they accepted my abstract among many submissions, finally understand that writing an abstract is an art, and compressing thoughts into 250 words is an art. And like every other art form out there, once you start enjoying art, there is no going back.

Since then, I started to enjoy scientific writing and continued to write more abstracts, well, not a huge amount. In 2023, I submitted three abstracts to different conferences and symposiums, which got accepted. And now in 2024, I submitted an abstract on the first health information system project I did on developing a zero-budget COVID health information system for the Ministry of Health in Sri Lanka in 2021. I will present it at the Geneva Health Day following the Geneva Health Forum and the World Health Assembly in May 2024. I hope once these abstracts and papers get published and shared on the internet, people will read and learn something, and I’ve done something for science to progress.

The funny thing is, like I said in the beginning, everything in life is an incremental thing. And even though you don’t feel as if you are making progress, you still do. And only when you look back you feel how much you’ve changed, improved, made progress along the way.

I felt this for real when I submitted a full paper last week on one project we did. The abstract should be less than 150 words, and I wrote a decent abstract in 130 words, with 20 words to spare. I felt the snarky boy who once complained you need 500 words to write a proper abstract has come a long way.