Writing abstracts for research papers

A quick page to set out the abstract section of your research paper, dissertation or undergraduate project. Abstracts are a short overview of your whole paper, not so much a teaser but rather the whole story told in fewer words. This page deals primarily with times when you are reporting new findings i.e. research data, but they aren’t really limited to any discipline

In my experience, most new writers do a decent job at writing the approach and results parts of their abstract but do less well at the top and tail. Remember you need to tell readers the whole story, you want to encourage them to continue reading by telling them not only your core results but also why they matter; emphasizing the context, your motivation for asking the question and what your new data mean, the impact your studies will have.

Do more than merely summarizing the findings; show why your results are interesting and how they fit in the wider world.

How to write an abstract
Abstracts for papers are less about obscure art forms and more about efficient content delivery!

Structure 

  • Context 
  • Question
  • Main answers 
  • Impact of answers on field and elsewhere

Check the instructions! Before you go too far, check the journal or assignment requirements (read the syllabus!). Certain journals have very different set ups and not every article type will have an abstract (e.g. Letters to the editor probably won’t).

Structured  Abstracts. Many journals are prescriptive in layout, requiring specific subsections. Usually: background/introduction, aim, methods, results, conclusions. Structured abstracts can be easier to write, as taking away flexibility also takes away some decision making. You can’t go too far wrong. Therefore, even if you are not required to use a structured approach, you could still use those subsections (without subheading) to put together your first draft. Be aware that you could probably do a better job with a more narrative style.

Freeform Abstracts. If you consider structured abstracts like bullet points, then freeform abstracts are more like story telling. You still deliver the same core material and generally follow the same overall structure, but you have flexibility to tweak the order to improve the flow and to make your abstract more enjoyable to read. The most obvious way to do this is to combine the methods and results for each stage of the experiment and using better linking phrases to smooth your transitions; things like “next we asked”.

Remember that your abstract must be able to stand alone! It should tell the whole story!

Check your word or character count limits. These can vary a lot from journal to journal; usually somewhere between 200 and 350 words. The difference between a 200 and a 350 word abstract is quite large in terms of style and content, so I recommend that you be aware of your target length before you start. Don’t know the target journal? 300 words is a good length to go for.

Get your tenses right!

Use past tense for intro and most results (Our experiments revealed…). Present tense for results/conclusions that will remain true (these data demonstrate that X influences Y) and future tense if you make any next steps type comments.

“Here we show….”, use the active voice wherever you can!

“X influences Y” is usually* better than “Y is influenced by X”

Active voice is more enjoyable to read, delivers the message within the story more effectively. Not sure what I mean? I plan to write an editing guide soon but for now this page is quite good.

*Be aware that sometimes your data will require passive voice e.g. the phrase in the box might be more appropriate as the passive version when you don’t have the appropriate data to support interpretation as a direct influence.

Don’t use references in an abstract (usually)

On the rare occasions when you do have to cite something i.e. your whole story is hung on the back of a single previous finding, you should be aware that there might be different rules in the abstract than there is for the rest of your in text citations; check your instructions.

Getting the balance right

Context. One sentence of the big picture – accessible to a scientist of any discipline. Then one sentence of more detailed background to set up your specific question. Together these sentences should set up your research question.

  1. Why should I care about this topic?

2. What wasn’t known about your research area before you started?

Question (Aim or hypothesis). One sentence that clearly states the problem that your work has addressed. This is best if it is a clear single question the all your experiments point toward. If the goalposts moved as your work progressed, state the natural start point of the story as you are telling it.

3. What did you actually want to know?

Main results. For most journals this will be the longest section. Summarise your main findings, not everything, just the key parts of the story that answer the main study question. Draw attention to anything unexpected and/or if they support/refute your hypothesis. Indicate magnitude of effects, strength of your inferences (i.e. p values!) and the statistical tests. As with your results section tie these together with link phrases so it’s easy to read.

4. How did you do your experiments

5-7. What results did you get

Conclusions. DON’T FORGET THIS. Depending on the journal, this part of the abstract can be of different length. The proportion also depends on how big/impactful your findings are. Journals like Nature expect this to be the major part of your abstract. However, most often, a single sentence is all you will need. Basically here you are putting your work back into a real world context. Make your conclusions as specific and as general as your data can support while making sure they aren’t an overreach.

Writing a student paper? I think the conclusion is most often missing from the abstract I have marked. Don’t forget it, it is required to round out your abstract

8.What do your findings mean?

Did you answer a major question, will they influence thinking or practice in the field?

Your main conclusions will ultimately be reflected and expanded upon in the last paragraph of your discussion. Use different phrasing in the two sections but keep on the same message. Discussion writing guide here.

Keywords and search engine optimisation

You can ignore this if writing a student paper but it is something you should probably consider if aiming for a journal.

It’s all very well writing a great abstract but if no one reads the abstract in the first place then you are no better off. You need your work to be found when people are searching. Think about who you want to read it and how they will use search engines (not just pubmed/scopus but google and bing are often used to locate papers). Test our some search terms and see what comes up.

I’m not expert in SEO but what I understand is:

  1. Place your main keywords in the first two sentences
  2. Be consistent in terminology throughout manuscript including subheadings, figure legends etc.
  3. Don’t overuse keywords, too much repetition (‘keyword stuffing’) may result in search engines ‘un-indexing’ your article.

For biomedical work you can use MeSH keywords, headings in National Library of Medicines-controlled library thesaurus to help you find good keywords. Google Adwords keyword planner or Google trends can also be good sources of information.

But

Don’t let the quest to include keywords distract from the delivery of your story

And finally

Like all the rest of your document, your abstract will need multiple drafts before it is perfect. Abstracts are usually the last thing I write in terms of first draft. However, they then get read every subsequent time I am reading and editing the paper. Looking back, I think I actually think I should have spent more time perfecting the abstract of my papers and will be consciously focusing more energy on them in the future.

Before you submit….

Get someone who is not an expert in your field to read your abstract! If they can’t understand it, go back and edit more.

Some useful links

Nature summary paragraph explained – pdf

Our writing guide section for the rest of your paper.

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