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How to write a successful research abstract

How research abstracts succeed and fail

The abstract of a research article has a simple remit: to faithfully summarize the reported research. After the title, it’s the most read section of the article. It’s freely available on the publisher’s website and in online databases. Crucially, it makes the case to the reader for reading the article in full. 

Alas, not all abstracts succeed. 

Some take the notion of abstraction to extremes. This example is from a physics article:

Unitarity and geometrical effects are discussed for photon-photon scattering.

It has just ten words. Fortunately, most abstracts say rather more, though it’s possible to say too much. The next example, from a geology article, has over 370 words. It starts:

Diagenesis of the Holocene-Pleistocene volcanogenic sediments of the Mexican Basin produced, in strata of gravel and sand, 1H2O- and 2H2O-smectite, kaolinite, R3-2H2O-smectite (0.75)-kaolinite, R1-2H2O-smectite (0.75)-kaolinite, R3-kaolinite (0.75)-2H2O-smectite and R1-1H2O-smectite (0.75)-kaolinite. Smectite platelets…

It continues in a similar vein for a further 350 words, accumulating more and more detail. The reason for the work is hinted at, but only becomes clear in the full article, at which point it’s too late.

Some abstracts introduce citations to previous research to provide background, contrary to the expectation that abstractions stand alone. In practice, citations can block the reader’s progress, as in this example from a remote-sensing article: 

The purpose of this paper is to extend the stationary stochastic model defined in [1] to a time evolving sea state and platform motion.

The reference pointed to by “[1]” isn’t attached to the abstract, and the source article is obviously elsewhere. Yet without it, the rest of the text is difficult to appreciate. Similar problems can occur with abbreviations explained only in the article.

Some abstracts confuse their remit by summarizing the paper rather than its content. The shift to meta-reporting can lead to uninformative boiler-plate text. This example is from a medical education article:

Implications of these results are discussed.

It’s uninformative because readers already know that most research articles contain a discussion section where, by definition, results and their implications are discussed.

Some abstracts expand their remit to include personal research plans. This example is from a clinical article:

We plan to investigate why general practitioners are not complying with the pathway.

It’s common to find research aspirations in internal reports and in research grant applications, where they have a specific function. But published in an abstract, they can present a reader working in the same area with a difficult choice.

Some abstracts expand their remit even further with a self-evaluation of the research. This example is from a finance article:

We believe this study will benefit academics, regulators, policymakers and investors.

The problem is that the reader may not see these pronouncements as truly impartial, with the result that the authority of the article is weakened, not strengthened.

Abstracts can of course fail in many other ways, for example, omitting caveats, adding new information, exaggerating certainty, or providing no more than an advertisement, a piece of puffery.

How to write a successful abstract

In the light of all this, what should go into a successful abstract? Some clinical journals settle the matter by imposing a structured format. But most journal and conference proceedings don’t and may offer little or no detailed guidance to the author, who may be left confused about what’s needed.

One starting point is to think of the abstract not as a condensed version of the paper that preserves the original structure and proportions, but as a mini- or micro-paper in its own right, with certain basic elements:

  • the context or scope of the work
  • the research question or other reason for the work, if relevant
  • the approach or methods
  • a key result or two
  • a conclusion, if appropriate, or other implications of the work.

Naturally the weight given to each element depends on the research—whether it’s experimental, observational, or theoretical, and whether the expected audience is general or specialized. How much to write about each element is then a balance between including detail and retaining the reader’s interest. 

Within those constraints, it’s important to identify any critical assumptions, non-standard methods, and limitations on the findings so that the scope and potential application of the research is clear. The reader shouldn’t discover on reading the article that the abstract was misleading.

Here’s an example of a well-written abstract from a neuroscience article

An unresolved question in neuroscience and psychology is how the brain monitors performance to regulate behavior. It has been proposed that the anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), on the medial surface of the frontal lobe, contributes to performance monitoring by detecting errors. In this study, event-related functional magnetic resonance imaging was used to examine ACC function. Results confirm that this region shows activity during erroneous responses. However, activity was also observed in the same region during correct responses under conditions of increased response competition. This suggests that the ACC detects conditions under which errors are likely to occur rather than errors themselves.

From C. S. Carter et al., Science 1998, 280, 747-749. Reprinted with permission from AAAS.

Successive sentences describe the context, the reason for the work, the methods, some results, and an implication. According to Elsevier’s Scopus database, the article has been cited over 2,500 times.

Encapsulating a body of research so effectively usually takes repeated rewriting. The timing, though, can be a challenge, since the abstract is often prepared last, when the main sections of the paper have found a settled form. It then risks being rushed while material is assembled for submission for publication. 

Despite these pressures, the abstract needs as much attention as any other section of the paper. After all, if it doesn’t do its job, the reader may turn to other abstracts that do. And the published article may languish unretrieved and unseen, waiting in vain for the recognition it deserves.

Recent Comments

  1. Mark Greenlee

    Excellent insights into how to best formulate a scientific abstract. Often thought of as a necessary add-on required for an article’s submission, the abstract is probably the most frequently read part of scientific publications.

  2. Alex Baratta

    I agree with the advice on how to write an abstract. Academic writing overall, which includes abstract writing of course, is very much a tick-box exercise in terms of its predictable structure and content. I find this is an effective way to teach the subject to my students, also a good means to make the abstract (in an adjectival sense) – such as ‘criticality’ – more concrete.

  3. David Henry Peterzell

    I think this is spot on. I’m not sure if my own abstracts are ‘successful’, but I everything here had me nodding in agreement. In my graduate and undergraduate courses, and on the dissertations I chair, and on the papers I write, I’m rather obsessive about writing and frequently revising the abstract. This new short article has made it to my list of required readings.

  4. Jan Morovic

    Thank you for this excellent reflection about abstract writing and its pitfalls. I shall refer to it the next time I write an abstract and recommend it to colleagues and students too.

  5. Dave Furness

    I agree fully. As an editor and reviewer of many manuscripts, I often have to correct the basics in the abstract.

  6. emad alsusa

    Very useful. I shall ask my students to read this :-).
    Thanks David.

  7. Dennis Levi

    Great rant – this is a perfect set of examples of bad and good abstracts, and terrific guidance for abstract writing.

  8. C. Alejandro Parraga

    Thank you for the insight. I believe abstracts are also the main source for extracting keywords/indexing papers in most journals, therefore is important to struture them with this in mind.

  9. Long Zhang

    Writing could consume a large amount of time, in particular for young researchers. It is never easy to write a good abstract. I could not agree with the author more. The advices and examples are excellent. I hope more researchers could look at the blog. I would definitely recommend this blog to my PhD students.

  10. kaida xiao

    Thanks David for this excellent insights of abstract writing. It is super important indeed for any academic paper. I have shared it with my students and I am sure they will like it very much as well.

  11. Graham Edgar

    Good advice for students – and many established researchers…

  12. Wuliang Yin

    A must read for PhD students and young researchers. If a student asked me to read/comment on one section of their thesis, I would say it is the abstract.
    Even experienced academics cannot guarantee a successful abstract, so after reading the blog, I hurried to check some of my recent papers to see if they have at least some of successful elements!

  13. Krikor Ozanyan

    Well written – to the point and practical.

    The 21st centry brought in the graphical abstact. The facility of providing visual abstraction generates interesting thoughts as to the main function of the abstract: “to make the case to the reader for reading the article in full” – as David rightfully points out. Graphical abstracts are trivially seen as “the most important figure”, but there is a growing trend to make the visual abstract tell the paper’s story. I would volunteer to admit that on some (rare?) occasions I triage a research paper by going through the figures, then through the conclusions, to decide whether to read or not. Shouldn’t the graphical abstract be seen as a simplified and more efficient version of my admitted sin, with no initial reading involved? .

  14. Healthlinz

    I agree with the advice on how to write an abstract. Academic writing overall, which includes abstract writing of course, is very much a tick-box exercise in terms of its predictable structure and content. that is very good information well provided by you.

  15. Adam Reeves

    two points, the first so clear in Carter, 1988:
    1. the Abstract must be logical. Facts and conclusions should jibe.
    2. Don’t assume the reader knows as much as you do. The reader does not. Try the Abstract out on a colleague and ask him or her to explain it back to you.

  16. Paul Martin

    Many thanks David: it’s great advice, just as we have learned to expect from you.

  17. Patrick Gaydecki

    Getting the balance right in an abstract is a very tricky task – I must hold my hand up and confess that in the past I have been guilty of some of the transgressions described here. This is a very informative piece on how to craft an abstract that is both accurate and will get the right attention.

  18. Zyg Pizlo

    Considering pressure to publish many papers every year, there is danger that in well-written abstracts only the 4th bullet will keep changing across papers (a key result or two).

  19. Yoko Mizokami

    This is a great insight! I’ll definitely recommend to my students and I should I should keep in remind myself when I write an abstract.

  20. Tiziano Agostini

    Thanks David. I fully agree with your considerations. A well-written abstract can make a difference in my choice to read or not read a scientific paper.

  21. Zhengtao Ding

    Abstract should just tell the readers what has been done in the paper, at the level that the targeted readers would understand, not justifying why to do it, motivation, etc. It is also not necessary to claim the significance of the result in the abstract. The right readers would know the significance if you would correctly inform them what you have done.

  22. Elza Tantcheva-Burdge

    Very valuable practical note which for some it would be a helpful guide, for others a reminder how best to proceed.
    Thank you David, for the time spent distilling the essence of the task, presenting it with such clarity and ease, but most of all thank you for the generosity in sharing your observations, thoughts, and experience.

  23. Gaoyang

    ———-
    Successive sentences describe the context, the reason for the work, the methods, some results, and an implication.
    ———-

    I often find that business plan also can use this structure to make people better understand your idea.

  24. Jasna Martinovic

    An excellent post, which I’ve immediately forwarded to our departmental learning technologist, recommending he includes it in our ‘writing centre’. I have often thought about the reasons why undergraduates and early postgraduates struggle particularly with abstracts. I think it may be especially difficult to write concisely when you are less knowledgable, and that an otherwise more or less eloquent writer often can partly conceal some of the vagueness in one’s understanding of the key concepts and the detail of how these concepts are actualised in the conducted work. When forced to write an abstract, the strict word limits require clarity and commitment. there’s nowhere to hide any more!

  25. Pharmacovigilance Training

    It was a very good article about how research abstracts succeed and fail. Can you please suggest few other similar articles that I can go through and expand my understanding on the same.

  26. Omar Costilla-Reyes

    The abstract is the most important part of an article, conveying the main contributions of the research is important to pave the way for future research directions of readers. Thank you David for giving us insight into how to write good abstracts based on clear examples!

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