When you’re looking for articles in a bibliographic database, the title and abstract may be the only clues to help you decide which articles are worth reading (unless you can assess the reputation of the journal or the authors). Noah Gray, a senior editor at Nature, has written an excellent brief guide to reading an abstract, using two real abstracts (from Nature and Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise) as worked examples.
Noah Gray: Abstract Science
Jennifer Raff, an anthropologist at the University of Texas, offers the following advice (in a blog post written for the lay person):
When I’m choosing papers to read, I decide what’s relevant to my interests based on a combination of the title and abstract. But when I’ve got a collection of papers assembled for deep reading, I always read the abstract last. I do this because abstracts contain a succinct summary of the entire paper, and I’m concerned about inadvertently becoming biased by the authors’ interpretation of the results.
Jennifer A. Raff: How to read and understand a scientific paper: a guide for non-scientists