Jalalian (2012) states that writing an abstract is a vital part of any academic paper. It prefaces the entire study, but it is often written last owing to it summarizing the entirety of the research. However, many researchers find abstract writing to be tedious or easy, which trivializes their abstracts and leads them to commit a number of mistakes or inconsistencies with the text (Turner, 2009).
This article addresses the difficulty in writing an abstract, including those mentioned above. We have segmented the article into different sections, including the components and style of an abstract, for a step-by-step process. This guide aims to walk the reader through the process of making a cohesive and effective abstract.
An abstract is derived from the Latin abstractus, which means “drawn away.” This etymology also applies to art movements and music, including abstract expressionism, by which it means the revelation of the will of the artist (Drake, 1922).
From this, you can surmise what an abstract is: a takeaway from the research itself. It should be self-contained, independent of the corpus of the study, but it should describe the problem, the methods used to explore the problem, and the results of these processes. The exact components of the work will vary, depending on the field (Jalalian, 2012), but all in all, it should be a concise summary of the entire paper (Slade, 1997). It is also similar to an executive summary in a business report (Koopman, 1997).
An abstract is also typically written last, although it prefaces the paper. In general, your abstract should be able to:
In addition, your abstract should not:
Finally, after reading an abstract, a reader should know why the study was conducted to begin with, what the research has concluded, and how it can be applied or how it can be useful. This role in any academic paper means the abstract is the single most-read part of any research article. As such, it should cover all major points of the paper (Winker, 1999).
Writing an abstract is mostly a requirement for research papers, but it is not a requirement without a purpose or merely for tradition. An abstract facilitates scanning the paper to determine whether the reader finds it relevant to their own research or study. Using an abstract, a researcher doesn’t need to pore through your entire paper to find the content they’re looking for; they simply have to look at your abstract—conveniently placed before the article—to see if your study can provide them additional information.
Abstract writing is also important for indexing. Internet repositories of academic papers use abstracts to index to the full text of academic papers. Similar to meta descriptions in regular Google results, abstracts should contain keywords to help the researcher find what they’re looking for. This has made abstracting and indexing services (A&I) essential for the scientific, technical, and medical (STM) fields.
As mentioned earlier, searching a database is a highly time-consuming task. Therefore, most researchers rely on abstracts so they can spend their time wisely looking for supporting data or information. An abstract is thus useful for those who are also conducting research.
In addition, certain professionals, such as librarians or database administrators, also welcome great abstracts. Keyword usage and succinct abstract writing help them to organize their indexes much better. A well-written abstract can aid in the accurate categorization of your paper.
Furthermore, a review panel (such as for a conference) is also one of the audiences of an abstract. As they would not be able to read your entire paper in one sitting, they can choose to look at your abstract first to see if it is worth their time.
A good abstract is concise and straightforward; it needs to impart as much information as possible in the space of one paragraph. This is why sectioning it or writing its components piecemeal can be effective. In this article, we break down the four parts of an abstract: the introduction, the methodology, the results, and the conclusion.
We explain them in more detailed terms below.
The introduction answers the question, “What?” It consists of about two to three sentences that summarize the article.
When writing the introduction, the first sentence should mention the core content of the paper, while the second should be its background or context of the issue.
The introduction should state the research focus and define the importance of the research. The researcher can do this by defining the gap in knowledge that the article aims to address or the limitations or restrictions of previous studies. The introduction tackles the most important part of the research in as economical a way as possible.
Additionally, ask yourself a few things when writing the introduction:
The introduction also contains the third sentence, which addresses the significance of the research. This statement answers the question “Why?” This element of the abstract is one of the most important aspects that draw readers in the first place.
This section details the objective of the research, or what it aims to do, in the form of a hypothesis. You can be more specific here as needed. You should also mind writing the significance of the research in a way that is appropriate to your variables and data.
Funding agencies often look at the hypothesis and the significance of the research to judge whether the study merits their attention or, most importantly, a grant. As more research is done to open up new vistas of knowledge, so do funding, as visualized by the chart below.
Source: National Science Foundation
This section answers the question “How?” This part details the processes and the methods used to answer the “What” (Introduction) and the “Why” (Significance of the Research) questions stated earlier.
You should dedicate about three to four sentences to your methodology section. Here, you should describe the following:
The results section, also known as findings, is the climax of the abstract. This, in general terms, answers the main thrust of the study. As such, it will contain, apart from the results, a statement of its significance (and how it is so) and how it has changed (if at all) from the hypotheses put forth in the third sentence.
In addition, the results should always be written in the past tense. While it will vary depending on the methods you have used and the amount of data you have generated, it should never mention anything beyond the scope of the study or what you yourself have found.
Make sure that you are only stating the results. Interpreting it should be in the next section, where you can give the reader what the results mean and how it can affect the field of knowledge you are researching in.
The conclusion is the final section of the abstract. It answers the question “So what?” This section interprets what you have found in the previous section and states the overall implications of your results. The conclusion describes what these findings mean for the long-term or the field in question. It can also contain your recommendations based on your findings.
To write this section effectively, you can ask yourself a few more things, such as:
That said, it’s easy to over-generalize or exaggerate the implications and significance of your results. Avoid this by sticking to the data that the reader can actually find on the paper. Outline the key findings and then string them together using a rational statement.
Writing an abstract has several conventions on style. What further complicates things is that certain publications have their own in-house style, confusing writers on how to proceed writing. To make it as simple as possible, we have chosen to follow the 7th edition of the American Psychological Association (APA, 2020) as will be discussed further below.
In general, observe these guidelines:
Here is a checklist of requirements as far as the APA-recommended abstract writing style is concerned.
Abstracts should at least be 150 words long but never exceed 250 words. However, account for the length of the study and the data collected and analyzed. A whole dissertation will take up to 250 words, while a shorter one may merit about 150-160 words. The type of abstract will also play a role in length considerations.
If you are writing a paper as a student, your institution or professor may require a specific word count requirement.
Breaking down an abstract into its constituent parts and the composition of an abstract can best be described by the chart below:
Source: Carnegie Mellon University IMRAD
Keywords, like in search engines, help indexers (like the aforementioned librarian) find the relevant paper. If your abstract misuses—or worse, does not use—keywords, the database will not be able to look your paper up no matter how great or ground-breaking your research. This is why it pays to use the relevant keywords to help readers find your manuscript and allow it to be cited.
Choosing keywords is a study in itself. In general, however, effective keywords should represent the content of your paper and be specific to your discipline or industry. Mahboobi et al. (2010) recommend that keyword selection should be no less than three and no more than 10.
The APA recommends the formatting for your keywords:
Most researchers and studies use one of the two major types of abstracts: descriptive and informative (Kilborn, 1998). We look at how they differ below.
Descriptive abstracts, as you can glean from its name, describes the type of information about the work. Of the two major types, descriptive abstracts are infrequently used in research papers because of their dearth of information. It may, however, contain keywords and some information about the purpose, scope, and methodology of the research.
This type of abstract is very short, often just a few lines, or about 100 words or less. It makes no pretensions on the veracity of the work nor does it provide results and/or conclusions and implications of the research. Jalalian (2012), in his paper “Writing an eye-catching and evocative abstract for a research article: A comprehensive and practical approach,” uses a descriptive abstract:
“It is an important and difficult job to write an eye catching abstract. A large percentage of the manuscripts that are submitted to academic journals are rejected because their abstracts are poorly written. This paper provides a new and step by step approach for writing a good structured abstract.”
Most people who write abstracts (and those who read them) encounter the other type, called an informative abstract. This type does more than just describe a paper; it expresses and explains the arguments, evidence, and results of the study. Like a descriptive abstract, it contains the scope and questions, but it also includes the findings and the implications of the research.
Here is an example of an informative abstract based on an experiment by Palmquist, M., & Young, R. (1992).
“Research reported by Daly, Miller, and their colleagues suggests that writing apprehension is related to a number of factors we do not yet fully understand. This study suggests that included among those factors should be the belief that writing ability is a gift. Giftedness, as it is referred to in the study, is roughly equivalent to the Romantic notion of original genius. Results from a survey of 247 postsecondary students enrolled in introductory writing courses at two institutions indicate that higher levels of belief in giftedness are correlated with higher levels of writing apprehension, lower self-assessments of writing ability, lower levels of confidence in achieving proficiency in certain writing activities and genres, and lower self-assessments of prior experience with writing instructors. Significant differences in levels of belief in giftedness were also found among students who differed in their perceptions of the most important purpose for writing, with students who identified “to express your own feelings about something” as the most important purpose for writing having the highest mean level of belief in giftedness. Although the validity of the notion that writing ability is a special gift is not directly addressed, the results suggest that belief in giftedness may have deleterious effects on student writers.”
Informative abstracts take on a more important role in medicine as well, where some physicians and clinicians refer to it as structured abstracts (Haynes, 1990). With a structured abstract, authors are required to systematically “disclose the objective, basic research design, clinical setting, participants, interventions (if any), main outcome measurements, results, and conclusions; and for literature reviews the objective, data sources, methods of study selection, data extraction and synthesis, and conclusions.”
A structured abstract may also help cut down on bibliographic utility expenses that academic libraries, which are common research repositories, maintain for these papers. These expenses, while small compared to their operating costs, are still remarkably high, as you can see below.
Source: NCES; Institute of Education Sciences, 2012
The abstract is a brief summary of your paper, but it is one of the most important—if not the most. However, writing one is never easy. Some amateurs often write it first, thinking that it “teases” what follows (the paper itself), but it should instead be treated as a spoiler (Halpern and Phelan, 2017).
The pithy, straightforward style of the abstract lends itself well to a well-written, well-researched study. If your paper does not have definitive results or the objective of the research itself is questionable, so would your abstract. Therefore, write only the abstract after you have seen your findings and interpreted them in a larger context.
Careful attention and detail can help you on your way to writing an effective, interesting abstract.