How to write an abstract
An abstract is a brief paragraph at the beginning of an academic paper that provides an overview of the article. Abstracts are often also included on posters or submitted to conferences as a way of applying to give a talk. Virtually all articles listed on indexing sites such as PubMed have a freely available abstract.
What is the purpose of writing an abstract?
The purpose of the abstract is to provide an overview of the paper. As such, it acts like a ‘mini’ version of the paper and follows the same structure as the main text, beginning with an introduction to the topic and purpose of the study, going on to briefly describe the methods used in the study, and ending with the conclusion(s) drawn from the study and why the findings are important.
Because abstracts are so short (often only 250–300 words in length), this information needs to be presented very concisely, and there is little room for extraneous information. For this reason, writing an abstract will typically involve highlighting only the most important aspects of each section in the main body of the text: the most relevant background information, the key methods used, and the most significant findings.
While many academic articles continue to be published behind paywalls, abstracts are for the most part freely available for all to read, whether on journal websites or through indexing services, so another key role of the abstract is to persuade readers to access the whole paper. This is true even in cases where a journal subscription is not needed to access the full paper, as most researchers do not have time to read every published article that is relevant to their field of interest. Reading an abstract gives readers the opportunity to decide how interesting, relevant, and important your paper is, and whether it is worth investing the time to read the whole article. Therefore, it is crucial that your abstract accurately reflects the content of the paper itself.
What should be included when writing an abstract?
A well-written abstract will provide readers with all of the information they need to understand why the study was performed, how it was performed, what it showed, and what it means, without any extraneous information to distract them from these points. In most cases, the abstract should contain the following main elements:
- Background information. Start the abstract with one to two sentences describing the general context of the study to help give readers an idea of how the study fits into the context of the wider field. It is often useful to highlight a specific gap in the field that the study was designed to address, as well as to clearly state the main objective of the study.
- Methods. The next few sentences of the abstract should then describe the primary methods used to investigate the main objective of the study. Keep in mind that this is an overview, so not every technique needs to be listed, only the crucial ones.
- Results. The description of the study findings should comprise the bulk of the abstract. This part of the text should clearly but concisely describe each main finding from the study; often this will take the form of one phrase or sentence per each figure or table shown in the paper, as these display items also highlight the key results. Generally speaking, specific values and data (such as percentages, standard errors, p-values, etc.) should not be included in the abstract; rather, this part of the text should provide readers with an overview.
- Discussion. The final one to two sentences of the abstract are used to state the overall conclusion(s) drawn from the key findings that have just been summarised in the preceding text. You may wish to end this section with a statement of significance that tells readers why the overall conclusion is important in the context of the wider field.
What should not be included when writing an abstract?
Because the abstract is essentially a summary of the main paper, it should not present any information that is not included in the paper itself. This is true for every element of the abstract, not just the description of the results. For example, if the statement of the study aim does not match the aim stated in the introduction, the abstract will not give readers an accurate impression of the article. Similarly, mentioning potential applications of the results in the abstract that are not then explored in detail in the Discussion section can be unintentionally misleading, and should be avoided.
In addition, as mentioned above, confirmatory and/or negative results are typically not mentioned in the abstract, to avoid distracting readers from the most important findings. For example, the results from negative controls should generally not be mentioned here.
At a structural level, most journals do not allow the inclusion of literature references or references to figures or tables in the abstract, so check your target journal guidelines carefully if you feel it is important to include either of these elements.
Finally, it is advisable to minimise the use of abbreviations in the abstract. If a term is only used once in the abstract, it should be spelled out in full, and no abbreviation should be provided, as all abbreviations will be defined again in the main text. Prioritising the use of full terms instead of abbreviations in this section will make the abstract more accessible to a wider range of readers, and avoid the visual disruption of an abbreviation in the middle of a sentence.
Additional tips for writing an abstract
While the abstract is one of the first parts of the paper to be read, it is usually a good idea to write it last. Writing the paper first can help you organise your thoughts and develop a clearer understanding of the key elements of your own study.
While the abstract should very closely reflect the content of the paper, do not be tempted to copy and paste sentences from the main text to create the abstract, as this can result in awkward wording and the inclusion of too much detail. If you are struggling to write an abstract ‘de novo’, consider starting with sentences copied from the paper as an outline to help you structure your thoughts, then revising and editing that raw material to come up with a cohesive paragraph that flows smoothly.
Be sure to check your target journal’s guidelines to see whether there is a word limit for the abstract. It may be simpler to write the abstract first and then edit it down to meet the word limit than to try to write it to a specific target. We also advise checking the author guidelines to see if subheadings need to be inserted to structure the content of the abstract.
Finally, consider reviewing the abstract prior to submission to check whether it contains the keywords that best represent your study. Ideally, the title, abstract, and main body text will all naturally contain the same small collection of keywords, so a quick check for these can help you assess how accurately the content of the abstract matches the content of the main paper.
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