If you want to capture a reader’s interest, frame an engaging title; if you need to summarize your text, write a good abstract. An abstract briefly and precisely describes what a paper is about and what readers can anticipate finding from it.
An abstract, written as a short piece of text, assumes a pivotal role because it helps readers decide whether to read the entire paper or not. By following a few simple guidelines, scholars can create abstracts that generate interest in their work and help readers quickly learn if the paper will interest them. When submitting to scholarly publications, consider that most rejections of academic contributions are due to poorly written abstracts.
This article aims to contribute to the existing literature about scholarly abstracts, including providing a number of good definitions of what an abstract is and its importance and purpose. It will, of course, as the title suggests, offer valuable tips on how to write an abstract, as well as other key considerations and good examples.
I. What is an Abstract?
An abstract is one of the most important parts of any academic or professional paper (Atanassova et al., 2016). This concise text functions as a synopsis of a paper’s content. It is designed to very briefly summarize the key details contained in a paper without providing too much detail (Hartley, 2008).
An abstract is a self-contained, short, and definitive summary that describes the full contribution or content of an academic publication. Generally considered as the first section of a scholarly article, an abstract is considered as “a standalone genre” (Gillaerts & Van de Velde, 2010 cited in Ngai et al. 2018).
Parts of an abstract vary according to discipline. On the one hand, abstracts of social science or scientific research may contain the scope, purpose, results, and contents of the work. On the other hand, an abstract of a humanities paper may include the problem or hypothesis, background, and conclusion of the complete research report.
However, it should be noted that an abstract is not a review. Moreover, although it contains the key terms and frameworks found in the main paper, the abstract should be regarded as an original text rather than merely an extracted content.
While there are many different types of abstracts in terms of an author’s field, discipline, or purpose, all of them typically serve these primary objectives:
- An abstract helps readers decide if they should read the whole article. Readers first read abstracts to know if an article interests them or is related to a subject important to them. Instead of checking numerous written materials, readers depend on abstracts to quickly determine if an article is relevant to them or not.
- It presents the nature or level of technicality of an article. Readers use abstracts to help them measure the complexity or sophistication of a report or article. If the abstract is too simple or too technical, readers will readily know whether to read the entire article or not.
- An abstract enables supervisors to evaluate theses or dissertations without being too overwhelmed by intricate details. While many research supervisors and thesis advisers prefer reading simple executive summaries, some of them still need to be updated on technical developments. Due to their busy schedules, many of them rely mainly on abstracts to know the work status of their thesis advisees or research subordinates.
- It helps to screen newly submitted papers and to decide on the initial outcomes for reviewing. Journal editors and conference organizers use abstracts in deciding whether to proceed to the review stage or just give the authors an initial reject.
- An abstract allows readers and researchers to easily remember core findings on a research topic. Even after reading an entire text, readers usually store copies of abstracts to remind them which particular studies support certain findings. Since abstracts have full bibliographic citations, they facilitate scholarly writing and referencing.
- It supports article indexing for quick access and cross-referencing. In the past, librarians and researchers had been using abstracts to easily find information. Today, with the bulk of easily accessible online indexes and virtual libraries, researchers can quickly scan through hundreds of abstracts to identify articles and materials relevant to their research. Further, abstract-based cross-referencing helps researchers discover new research areas and topics that are previously unknown when they began their research.
Abstracts show the key elements of a longer written work in a concise, yet authoritative way. The main objective of an abstract is to offer potential readers the chance to assess if an article or report is relevant to their specific needs or not. Because they contain the gist of a research article or report, abstracts have proven to be very helpful in providing essential information to a wide range of users.
When to write abstracts?
Students, researchers, authors, and other individuals prepare abstracts to meet the requirements when:
- submitting articles to journals
- applying for research grants
- writing a proposal for a conference paper
- completing an undergraduate/M.A. thesis or Ph.D. dissertation
- writing a proposal for a book chapter
- submitting a book proposal
- writing a patent
Usually, the author of the whole paper or article (or proposed work) prepares the abstract. For articles, book chapters, and other documents written by several authors, the first author typically writes the abstract in collaboration with other contributors.
The last decade saw an explosion in the volume of scientific papers, with an estimate of over 50 million scholarly articles in existence as of 2009 (Jinha, 2010). One approximation indicates that a new scholarly article is published every 20 seconds (Munroe, 2013).
PubMed, currently comprised of over 26 million papers, has a growth rate of around 1,370 new articles per day, while Thomson Reuters ISI Web of Science indexes over 90 million papers (Saggion & Ronzano, 2017).
As this pace is predicted to be sustained or even further increase, abstracts continue to grow in importance, as they help simplify an otherwise cumbersome research process.
II. How to Write an Abstract
A. Step-by-Step Guide
A comprehensive, chronological abstract writing process that can be used for most academic and technical requirements is provided:
- Complete your paper first. Although abstracts are placed at the beginning of your article, it is actually the last part that you need to write. Once you have finished writing your paper, you can then use it as a guide to preparing your abstract.
- Keep it short. In general, an abstract should be around 150 to 250 words, written in a single paragraph. The exact number varies per institution, journal, publisher, funding agency, etc. You should verify the required word-count to ensure you are submitting an abstract within the acceptable length. Different scholarly styles have different abstract length requirements.
- Structure of the abstract in the same order as your paper. Frame your abstract the way your article is written. As such, start with a concise summary of the Introduction, follow by synopses of the Method, Results, and Conclusion.
- Get ideas on how other abstracts in peer-reviewed journals and apply them to your abstract. Observe the key points that the authors selected to use in their abstracts to be published in venues you want to consider. Emulate their style and apply those suitable to your own paper.
- Prepare a rough draft of your abstract. Much as you should observe brevity, you must be careful not to make your abstract very short where the key points are lost. Try to write a few sentences condensing every major section of your article. Once you have prepared a rough draft, you can then carefully edit and rewrite each sentence for clarity and length.
- Ask a colleague to examine the abstract. Having new sets of eyes to check your abstract can offer new perspectives you’ve never seen before. It can also help you detect new errors and better ways to frame your sentences.
B. Things to Consider when Writing an Abstract
Your abstract’s format and substance will depend on the article or report to be abstracted. An abstract of a social science article or thesis will include material not used in abstracts for scientific research, and vice versa. Nonetheless, all abstracts share several mandatory components, and there are also some optional parts that you can decide to include or not.
When preparing to draft your abstract, keep the following core aspects in mind:
- Reason for conducting the research. Never lose sight of why the research was conducted. So include critical aspects that highlight the importance of the research as these are best used to engage readers to read the full paper.
- Problem. What problem does this work attempt to solve? What is the scope of the project? What is the main argument/thesis/claim?
- Methods. An abstract of a scientific work may include specific models or approaches used in the larger study. Other abstracts may describe the types of evidence used in the research.
- Outcomes. Again, an abstract of a scientific work may include specific data that indicates the results of the project. Other abstracts may discuss the findings in a more general way.
- Ramifications. What changes should be implemented as a result of the findings of the work? How does this work add to the body of knowledge on the topic?
The format of your abstract also depends on the type of paper you are writing. For example, an abstract summarizing an experimental paper will differ from that of a meta-analysis or case study. Here are some guidelines (in chronological order) when writing abstracts for specific types of articles.
Abstracts for literature reviews and meta-analyses
- Describe the problem of interest. Start the abstract by clearly stating what will be investigated or discussed in your review or analysis.
- Elaborate on the criteria utilized to select the studies included in the article. Explain how you chose the literature to help readers set their expectations when reading the full paper.
- Determine the participants in the studies. You should present details about the studies’ participants, such as in terms of demography, location, shared interests, etc.
- Present the main results. Quickly provide a concise summary of your findings, but try to include the most significant ones, to encourage your audience to read the entire paper.
- Provide some conclusions or implications. Provide at least one key conclusion and recommendation as readers tend to give this the most in importance, such as suggestions for further research.
Abstracts for experimental reports
- Identify the problem. In most scientific articles, it is common practice to start an abstract by providing your problem statement and/or hypothesis.
- Describe the study participants. You should present details about the studies’ participants, including relevant details like selection criteria, etc.
- Briefly discuss the method. To support repeatability and other scientific protocols, you must elaborate on your methodological aspects.
- Provide key findings. This functions as a concise preview of the study’s main results.
- Offer some conclusions or implications. Discuss what your results suggest and recommendations for future research.
III. How Long Should an Abstract Be?
The lengths of abstract differ by institution, publisher, and discipline requirements, although most commonly range from 100 to 500 words. Placing “Abstract” as a section title also varies per discipline and organization.
For abstracts following the APA (2014) style, abstracts should be between 150 and 250 words. The exact word-count, however, still differ from one journal, the publication style followed, or organization to the next (Brown, 2019). If you are writing the abstract as an academic requirement, check with your instructor for specific details.
Scientific articles such as lab reports and technical documents also require abstracts. In these instances, the abstract must include every major section of your paper, i.e., introduction, hypothesis, methods, results, and discussion.
As in most cases, abstracts are written last and placed at the beginning of an article or report. To ensure you are following the publication rules, consult the style manual of the institution or publication.
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IV. Different Types of Abstracts
There are several types of abstracts, based on aspects such as format or style and substance. The most common of these types are informative or indicative abstracts that are the opposite of descriptive ones and structured and unstructured abstracts.
Most abstracts nowadays are informative. Although they still do not make any actual assessments of the research, informative abstracts offer more than subtle descriptions—a well-written informative abstract functions as a proxy for the research per se (Saint et al., 2000 cited in Cummings et al., 2004). The author presents and elaborates on all key arguments and essential sections like research outcomes, study participants, and other useful details. Since it presents some important information about the research report or article, informative abstracts are longer.
Descriptive or Indicative abstracts
A descriptive abstract describes the type of information found in the article or report. It does not evaluate the paper, nor does it offer definitive conclusions or research outcomes. What it does is provide key terms or concepts found in the article and may include the objectives, methods, and scope of the study. It is more of an outline than a detailed synopsis and is often short.
Structurally, an abstract can either be structured or unstructured. Among scientific scholars, writing structured abstracts is the most common practice nowadays. A structured abstract’s sections are presented separately, i.e., objectives, population, study method, results, and conclusion (Hahs-Vaughn & Onwuegbuzie, 2010). Structured abstracts are the preferred type of health science scholars and publications as there are found to offer more advantages over traditional ones (Hartley, 2004). (For structured abstract samples, see the Example sections.)
Unstructured abstracts follow the conventional style as they are presented as a single (long) paragraph, albeit they still provide the same details as structured ones. Unlike structured abstracts, this type does not have any specific label per part or paragraph. However, they must follow the same content, sequence, and order as structured abstracts to properly guide the reader.
V. Common Mistakes in Abstract Writing
The abstract is usually the first thing people read before going through an entire article or report (Klimova, 2013). With such a pivotal role, considerable attention to detail and substance should be given to writing it.
Indeed, mistakes in grammar and style are commonplace in any type of article because there is no such thing as a perfect writer. Nonetheless, when it comes to writing specialized text like abstracts, notable errors tend to involve substantive oversights.
A study of the abstracts of 1,365 of systematic reviews from the National Library of Medicine and the Cochrane Library (reduced to 182 abstracts after applying the criteria) found that 77 abstracts (42%) failed to describe the direction of intervention effects in words (Beller et al., 20122). Of these problematic abstracts, 43 (24%) the direction of effect could not be reliably determined.
Turner (2009) offers a list of the most frequent errors in abstract writing after going through volumes of academic, publishing, and conference proposals.
- Withholding main points or concepts to catch readers’ attention. Some abstract writers deliberately hold back some or all the key information of their abstracts to provoke people to read the entire article. Abstracts should be factual and on point. They are not PR pieces for works of fiction.
- Including paragraphs. When academic and professional institutions, indexing services, and libraries began storing abstracts in online databases, the practice of separating abstracts into several paragraphs had stopped. Although a few organizations still allow this practice, most have ceased putting paragraphs in abstracts, even for most long, 300+ word Dissertation or Thesis abstracts.
- Using the first sentence of an article as the first line of its abstract. As a clear sign of sloppy, lazy work, recycling the same sentences to introduce abstracts and entire articles is a poor writing style.
- Including references. Unless the conference you are proposing to publish for requires it, never put any reference in your abstract. This obviously defeats the purpose of motivating your reader to read the article.
- Wasting introduction sentences. While it is good to use one to two sentences to clearly offer background information, your lead sentence should not be very general. It should briefly present the main topic of your article. Long introductory sentences could easily be combined into one.
Other common errors include: including abbreviations, jargon, and language shortcuts; repetition of words; referencing a table, figure, or any part of the main document; using superlatives and informal words; excessive use of the active voice; and complimenting one’s own work.
Source: Beller et al. (2011) 1,365 Systematic Reviews with Abstracts (182 remained) Designed by
VI. Good Examples of Abstracts
Here are a few selected samples of well-written abstracts of various types, uses, and target readers:
Abstracts for Scholarly Publications
Abstracts for Post-Graduate Requirements
In recent years, Hartley (2014) cited some notable developments in new forms of abstracts, namely, tweetable, video, and graphical abstracts. Here are their samples:
Abstracts are indubitably one of the most important parts of any research report, article, or technical document. It functions as an accessible window through which readers can readily see if they want to read the complete paper or not.
The above discussion offers substantial general information about abstract writing, which aims to provide commonly-accepted guidance. As a best practice, it is always suggested that you consult your institution for specific details.
In this fast-paced digital world, abstracts empower researchers and readers to cut to the chase and allow for quick decision-making. And this is why although they’re brief and direct to the point, abstracts are truly indispensable to every scholar, researcher, student, and anyone seeking valuable information.
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