The abstract is perhaps the most important section of your manuscript for several reasons. First, the abstract is the first section that is read by journal editors when deciding whether to send your manuscript for review. Similarly, once your work is published, it is the first section that is examined by readers; in many cases, it is the only section of the manuscript that they will ever read. This is in part because most literature databases index only abstracts, and access to full-text articles is often restricted.
In this way, the abstract emerges as a tool to communicate your research succinctly while highlighting its most important facets. The following article describes how to write a great abstract that will attract maximal attention to your research.
1. Write the paper first
Some authors will tell you that you should write the abstract as soon as your research is complete. However, it is likely that your project has been spread out over months or even years; thus, the full picture of what you have accomplished may not be fresh in your mind. Writing the paper first solves this problem, effectively refreshing your memory as you condense all of the aspects of your work into a single document. The manuscript can then be used as a guide to write the abstract, which serves as a concise summary of your research.
If you are having a hard time figuring out where to start, consider going through your paper and highlighting the most important sentences in each section (introduction, methods, results, and discussion/conclusions). Then, use these sentences as an outline to write your abstract. At this point, it is also important to check your target journal’s style guide to examine their abstract guidelines. For example, some journals require a structured abstract with discrete sections, and most journals impose a strict word count limit.
2. Provide introductory background information that leads into a statement of your aim
The first section of your abstract is very valuable real estate. These 1-3 sentences must inform the reader about why you have undertaken this research.
For example, “The importance of epistasis¬—non-additive interactions between alleles—in shaping population fitness has long been a controversial topic, hampered in part by lack of empirical evidence”1 is an excellent example of an introductory sentence that both states the main topic (the role of epistasis in shaping population fitness) and describes the problem (the lack of empirical evidence in this area). Thus, it immediately grabs the attention of the reader. The next sentence might go on to describe what information is lacking in the field or what previous researchers have done to try to address the problem.
Such statements can lead very naturally into a statement of how your research uniquely addresses the issue. Use of introductory phrases such as “Here, we aimed to…” or “Here, we demonstrate that…” indicates to the reader that you are stating the aim or purpose of your work.
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3. Briefly describe your methodology
The methods section of your abstract is your chance to summarize the basic design of your study. Excessive detail is unnecessary; however, you should briefly state the key techniques used. Abstracts in biological or clinical fields should mention the organism, cell line, or population studied. For ecology papers, the location of the study is often an important piece of information. Papers describing clinical trials should mention the sample size, patient groups, dosages, and study duration. The following example provides all of this information clearly and concisely in a single sentence: “One hundred consecutive consenting male inpatients in a state of moderately severe, uncomplicated alcohol withdrawal at screening were randomized to receive either lorazepam (8 mg/day) or chlordiazepoxide (80 mg/day) with dosing down-titrated to zero in a fixed-dose schedule across 8 treatment days.”2
4. Clearly describe the most important findings of your study
Just as the abstract may be the most important part of your paper, the results subsection is likely the most important part of your abstract. This is because the main reason that people are reading your abstract is to learn about your findings. Therefore, the results subsection should be the longest part of your abstract, and you should try to maximize the amount of detail you include here.
For example, statements such as “significant differences in body weight were observed between the animals in groups A and B” are not very informative. Instead, consider making more specific statements, such as “the average body weight loss of the animals in group A was greater than that of the animals in group B (20.4±0.3 g vs. 8.4±0.6 g; p<0.01)”. Note that the p-value effectively conveys that the difference was significant; thus, the word “significant” is no longer needed.
5. State the conclusion concisely and avoid overstatements
The last 1-2 sentences of your abstract should be devoted to the overall take-home message of your study: your conclusions. A good way to begin this section is with phrases such as “Our study revealed that…” or “Overall, we conclude that…”. Then, state your main finding as concisely as possible. If you have other interesting secondary findings, these can be mentioned as well. Finally, consider including a sentence that states the theoretical or practical implications of your work and/or describes how your work has advanced the field. This will help readers to more clearly understand the importance of your findings.
As mentioned earlier, many readers who are unable to access the full text of your manuscript will read only your abstract, and without access to your data, they will have to take your conclusions at face value. For this reason, it is very important not to overstate your conclusions in your abstract so as not to mislead your readers.
6. Things to avoid in an abstract
The abstract is meant to be a summary of your research; as such, it usually carries a strict word count limit. Combining all of the most important aspects of your work into a paragraph of 250 words or less can be a challenging task. However, knowing what to avoid when writing the abstract can make the job a little easier.
For example, the abstract should not contain:
- Lengthy background information (readers peruse your abstract to learn about your current work, not the previous work of other researchers)
- Details about routine laboratory procedures
- Details about the statistical methods or software used (unless this is the focus of your study)
- Undefined abbreviations or acronyms (most journals will provide a list of common abbreviations/acronyms that do not need to be defined; some journals do not allow the use of abbreviations/acronyms in the abstract)
- Results or interpretations that are not discussed in the text
Once you have completed the abstract, it is important to check that all of the information you have included here agrees with the information in the main body of your paper. After working on it for so long, it can sometimes be difficult to objectively evaluate whether your abstract is clear, especially because you are likely to be very familiar with the conventions within your discipline.
Consider giving your abstract to a colleague working in a separate discipline and ask him or her to read it. Ask your colleague whether the study is clear based solely on the abstract. This can help you to determine which areas of the abstract will require revisions, either to clarify your meaning or to better highlight your major findings.