Abstract writing: Purposes, conventions and types
- What is an abstract?
- Purpose of writing abstracts
- Conventions of writing abstracts
- Further considerations
- Types of abstracts
- How to write an abstract
An abstract is a brief overview, not an evaluative summary of a longer piece of writing. Different kinds of abstracts contain different information. Social science and scientific abstracts contain a statement of the research problem or purpose, a statement about current approaches and a gap in the literature (for theses, but not always journal articles), a statement of the method and methodology and a summary of the findings and the conclusions. Humanities abstracts contain a description of the problem, a statement of current approaches and the gap in the literature (for theses and exegeses, but not always journal articles), the main position or 'argument' and an overview of the contents.
The purpose and conventions of abstract writing, and the elements related to the specific types of abstracts are discussed in more detail below.
Abstracts are found in a number of different places, including:
- electronic databases
- preceding a journal article
- preceding a thesis, exegesis or research paper
- in conference programs
There are two main purposes for abstracts.
The main purpose of abstracts is to enable readers to decide whether to read the longer document. Similarly, abstracts for conference papers enable decisions about which sessions to attend. This is actually the second level of screening—the first being the title. The abstract provides further information about the problem or aim, the methodology, findings and conclusions. It provides a framework and prepares the reader to read or listen to the paper more closely. One important aspect of abstract writing is therefore to ensure that the abstract provides an accurate description of the paper and does not leave anything important out.
The other main purpose of abstracts is to provide key words for information searches. Librarians, and other information managers, use abstracts and the key words contained within them to develop indexing systems. Researchers use key words within online data bases to retrieve relevant information. This prevents searches of full texts, which would be too broad to be useful, and titles alone, which often do not provide enough information. Another important consideration in abstract writing is therefore to ensure that the abstract includes the key words that are applicable to the field or topic area.
‘Good’ abstracts conform to the following basic rules.
Within the word limit
It is important to conform to the word limit. Word limits are designed to ensure a concise and disciplined approach to writing. They enable readers, publishers, conference organisers and information indexers to access and use the information quickly and economically.
Correct structure and sequence
The abstract should have a clear structure with each sentence or part of a sentence designed to explain an aspect of the longer paper in the order in which that element appears in the longer version. More important information is provided before less important information. Depending on the type of abstract, this will usually include the problem statement, current approaches and gap in the literature (for theses and exegeses, but not always journal articles), purpose, methods, results and conclusions.
No information not contained in the longer paper
An abstract is a summary of the longer paper and does not introduce new information or tangents.
Definitions of key terms can be provided in the introduction of the longer work.
- information is linked together with transition words (therefore, in particular);
- writing is free from spelling and grammatical errors;
- the writing flows and does not distract the reader from the meaning.
Abstracts do not usually contain references. This is because the abstract aims to distil the unique contribution the current paper makes to a broader field of writing.
Conferences and journals often ask for a list of key words. Key words are designed to describe the topics and audiences likely to be interested in the longer paper. The key words in the abstract will determine who is likely to access the abstract when they conduct a literature search. The more thoughtful your key words, the more likely that your article or conference presentation will be found in key word search and therefore be read.
Some tips for writing key words:
- Think about the key words that best describe your main message.
- Think about the kinds of key words used by your target audience. These can often be found by checking relevant journals and conference sites in your field. Use the same key words used by other authors in the field.
- Check that at least some of these key words are included in the heading and within the abstract.
- Use your best key words to open sentences.
- Use two key words together, or a phrase. Most searches use two words.
- Use synonyms where possible (heart disease, cardiovascular disease) to encompass different search options.
- Try to avoid over repeating the same key words in the abstract, unless key words are repeated to links sentences and ideas.
Sometimes authors are asked to provide specific biographic details. This is often the name and institution to which you belong, but it can include information about your research background. Your research background includes the discipline area or areas, and the fields of scholarship within which your research is situated, as well as the topic areas you have researched within them. Try to describe your research area as accurately as possible in order not to misrepresent your research history.
Academic abstracts generally fall into three categories:
- Informative abstract
- Descriptive abstract
- Executive summary
The informative abstract is most common. It is used within the social sciences and the sciences. This kind of abstract describes what happened during the research process. It is also more likely to speak about ‘the research’ rather than ‘the paper’.
Although short and written to a word limit, informative abstract are longer than the descriptive abstracts described below. Informative abstracts contain specific information about the research and, in effect, the abstract becomes a summary of the key information from each section of the longer paper.
Upon reading an informative abstract we should know why the research was conducted, what it set out to do, how it was done, what the main findings were, and what we can conclude from this.
The key elements of an informative abstract are:
- reason for writing
- current approaches and gap in the literature (essential for theses, optional or often omitted in journal articles)
- research question/aim
- method and methodology
- conclusions or implications
Sometimes, informative abstracts are divided into subheadings for each of these elements, or broken into two or more smaller paragraphs with transition words to signify the move between elements.
The elements of an informative abstract are described below. Each is written in a particular tense.
Reason for writing/problem
- This is a brief sentence or two that establishes the reason for the research, and why the research is important. The research problem can take a variety of forms depending on the nature of the paper. These include: a problem, controversy, issue, or unresolved question within the literature. The research problem is written in the past tense or present perfect tense (the past in relation to the present, such as ‘have been’) to indicate something that was identified as an issue or ongoing question.
- This part of the abstract is essential in a thesis, but is often not included in a journal article because of limited space. In a thesis the examiner expects to see the research clearly situated within the field of literature. The literature review element within thesis abstracts indicates the field of scholarship or research that the thesis will contribute to (different from the field/s that the thesis will draw upon). The literature review element within the abstract summarises a gap in knowledge within the field by briefly summarising what has been done to date in the topic area within the field.
- The question or aim explains the precise focus that was investigated. It might also be phrased as an objective or hypothesis. The question or aim is also often encompassed within the problem statement. The question or aim arises from the review of the literature in the longer paper. It indicates exactly what aspect of a broader problem area and field of literature the research contributes to.
- This includes reference to the specific methods, models, approach or type of evidence used. The methodology is written in the past tense, to indicate what was done and why it was done. It should include critical information including the nature and size of the sample.
- The key results or findings are then summarized in order of greatest importance. This may include statistics or other numeric terms, although these should be kept brief and be self-explanatory. Results are also discussed in the past tense.
- In this part of the abstract, one or two of the key implications of the research are summarized. Conclusions pertain to the contribution of the research to the field, or to the kinds of changes that are suggested by the findings. The conclusions are written in the present tense to indicate their current relevance. Tentative verbs and modal auxiliaries (for example, could, may) are also applicable in this section.
Descriptive abstracts are used for papers in which a main proposition or argument, typically stated in the opening sections of the paper, is substantiated by reasoned debate, evidence, presentation of data, or reflective commentary, including commentary related to practical work. Descriptive abstracts are commonly found in the humanities disciplines. The descriptive abstract describes the main proposition or finding of the paper, and the main themes or bodies of evidence provided in the paper. In this sense it acts like a preview of the main event. It should relate directly to the information that is in the longer paper or presentation, and is more likely to speak about ‘the paper’ or 'the thesis/exegesis' rather than ‘the research’.
In journal articles, descriptive abstracts are short, sometimes under 100 words. Descriptive abstracts usually contain the following elements.
- topic/background (optional)
- problem statement or purpose
- current approaches and gap in the literature (essential for theses, optional or often omitted in journal articles)
- main proposition, finding or focus
- overview of contents (essential for theses, optional for journal articles)
- implications (essential for theses, optional for journal articles).
Each of these elements has a particular function and is written in the present or future tense in terms of:
- what is in the paper/presentation/thesis/exegesis
- what will be argued or demonstrated in the paper/presentation/thesis/exegesis.
The purpose of each element within an informative abstract is as follows.
- The topic tells the reader what the paper is about. If the word limit is tight, this can be omitted.
The problem statement or purpose
- This is essential. The research problem can take a variety of forms depending on the nature of the paper. These include: a problem, controversy, issue, or unresolved question within the literature.
- This part of the abstract is essential in a thesis or exegesis, but is often not included in a journal article because of limited space. In a thesis or exegesis the examiner expects to see the research clearly situated within the field of literature. The literature review element within thesis and exegesis abstracts indicates the field of scholarship or research that the thesis or exegesis will contribute to (different from the field/s that the thesis will draw upon). The literature review element within the abstract summarises a gap in knowledge within the field by briefly summarising what has been done to date in the topic area within the field.
- The main point or argument of the paper, thesis, or exegesis must be provided in the abstract. This is the take home message or central argument of the paper or thesis/exegesis.
Overview of the contents
- In journal articles, an overview of contents can also be provided if there is space within the word limit. In a thesis or exegesis it would be expected. This might include the methodology and/or the key themes within the longer paper or thesis (often describes key points or arguments within the chapters of the main body). Themes should be listed in the order in which they will appear in the presentation, paper, thesis or exegesis.
- The final part of the abstract, optional in journal papers but recommended in theses and exegeses, summarises the key implications of the argument, discussion or art work. The implications should tie back to the central aims and focus of the thesis, and refer back to the field of literture or practice within which the work is situated.
Although an Executive summary is similar to an abstract in that they both summarise a longer paper, there are some key differences. An Executive summary:
- is written primarily as a stand-alone document and can be quite long—up to 10% of the word-length of the longer paper;
- starts with the key findings of the research, which are then expanded upon;
- often uses dot points for emphasis and brevity;
- provides relatively brief coverage of the purpose, research problem and methodology used;
- has a strong focus on the recommendations and their justification;
- must accurately reflect what is in the report (the recommendations are sometimes word for word from the report);
- is targeted at people who are likely to implement the recommendations.
One of the key differences is the focus on recommendations. In research abstracts, recommendations are rarely made, or if they are, they are implicit rather than explicit. Recommendations are not made in academic abstracts because academics operate in a discursive environment, where debates, discussions and dialogue are meant to precede the implementation of any new research findings. The conceptual nature of much academic writing also means that recommendations arising from the findings are widespread and not easily or usefully encapsulated in regard to a single setting. This is quite different to the environment in which managers operate, where quick decisions and decisive actions are required in relation to specific issues.
Executive summaries are used mainly when a research report has been developed for an industry partner, a government department or an organisation that has participated in the research. In such cases the research report and executive summary are written for policy makers within non-academic organisations, while abstracts, research papers and articles are written for the academic community.
Informative abstract (biomedical sciences) journal article
Extract from Zeigler, M. Essentials of writing biomedical research papers, Second edition. McGraw Hill: New York. 271-272.
To determine whether lesions of the nucleus tractus solitarium alter pulmonary artery pressures and pulmonary lymph flow without altering the systemic circulation (reason for writing and question), we measured pressures and lymph flow in 6 halothane-anesthetised sheep in which we created lesions of the nucleus by bilateral thermo coagulation (experiment done). We found that pulmonary artery pressure role to 150% of baseline and remained elevated for the 3-h duration of the experiment. Pulmonary lymph flow doubled within 2 h. Systemic and left atrial pressures did not change. Sham nucleus tractus solitarium lesions and lesions lateral to the nucleus produced no changes (results—from variables that changed, to variables that did not change to control). These experiments demonstrate that lesions of the nucleus tractus solitarium alter pulmonary artery pressures and pulmonary lymph flow independently of the effects on the systemic circulation (answer to the question).
NB: Details for question and answer are presented in the same order: that is, pulmonary artery pressures, pulmonary lymph flow, systemic circulatory variables.
Descriptive abstract (higher education) journal article
Abstract for a published journal paper: Barnacle, R and R. Usher, 2003, 'Assessing the quality of research training: The case of part-time candidates in full-time professional work', Higher Education Research and Development, vol. 22, no. 3, November 2003.
Intrinsic to the Australian Federal Government's Research Training Scheme (RTS) is a perception that the quality of research degree graduates is in question; in particular, that they lack a skill set that would enable them after graduating to make a greater contribution to the knowledge economy, the information-rich workplace and to national innovation. However, little or no concrete evidence has ever been given to support these claims. Furthermore, no substantive distinction is made between different categories of research degree candidates – for example, between those who are undertaking their research full-time and those who are already full-time professional workers and are undertaking their research degree in a part-time mode (problem statement or purpose). We argue that making this distinction and exploring its impact is vital (main point) and report on a study that examines the role and relevance of research degrees to professionals and the workplace. This provides an evidence-based contribution to questions regarding the quality and attributes of research degree graduates and the synergies between their development in the workplace and the research program (overview of contents).
- Abstracts are usually written after the longer paper is completed, but it is often useful to start putting the elements together earlier on for theses. This is because the abstract can help you to 'map' the overall thesis and check that the key steps in the story line hold together.
- The first step in abstract writing is to re-read the longer paper or the sections in the thesis or exegesis, perhaps highlighting the relevant information.
- Next write a sentence or two (for journal papers), or a short paragraph (for theses), for each of the key elements within the abstract.
- Check that each sentence or short paragraph summarises the key element and does not leave anything important out.
- Then put the sentences together and work towards a unified abstract in which the elements flow naturally from one to the other. Pay particular attention to key words and transitions to ensure the ideas flow from sentence to sentence.
- The last step is to edit the abstract and to check that it fits within the word limit.
This resource was developed by Debra King and Wendy Bastalich.