What is an abstract?

So you have to write a scientific paper. You’ve done the research, you have an idea of what you will write about, and you have figured out the structure of the paper. There is just one problem – that pesky part at the beginning called the “abstract”. What is an abstract? What does it do? Why do you need it?

Scientific Abstracts

As we already established, an abstract comes at the very top/beginning of a paper. It is separate from the main text. This paragraph (or sometimes separated points – we will cover that in a minute) does many things. First and foremost, it summarises the major aspects of the paper. It does this by giving information about the question you investigated, the experimental design and methods used, the major findings with key results or trends, and brief information about the results and conclusion. Moreover, it does all of this in between 200 and 300 words (on average – the exact number depends on the journal).

However, a scientific abstract is more than just a short summary. It does so much more than this. Abstracts appear a lot more often than scientific articles do. For example at conferences, you may see a list of titles of publications/presentations. Each may be followed by an abstract. Not only is this a summary, but it should also act as a way of enticing people to come to that poster/paper presentation. Additionally either online or in print form, lists of articles (e.g. in a new journal edition) appear as titles with (usually) abstracts. In this case, if you are the author, you want as many people to read your paper as possible. The title and abstract combination is what lures people in.

To make an analogy, an abstract is the closest that science comes to becoming a Buzzfeed article. “Have you seen these former child celebrities? Number 12 will really shock you!” While using a different approach (scientific articles and their abstracts still follow The Basic Characteristics of Scientific English), the end result is the same – more people read articles with interesting abstracts than with boring ones.

types of abstracts

There are three predominant types of abstracts. If you are unsure which you should do, read the style guide of the journal you want to publish with. They will tell you directly which type to use.

Paragraph form

The most common type is the traditional type – paragraph abstracts. These ones are one paragraph of unbroken text. Typically the first sentence or two establishes the purpose and the next sentence establishes the method (without going into detail). The fourth sentence generally discusses the major results and the fifth sentence discusses the conclusion. Generally in an article with 200 words, you have reached this limit after 5 sentences and you usually need to go back to revise it down further to meet the limit. If you have more wiggle room (e.g. 300 words), you may be able to add a sentence to give another major (and interesting!) detail before you reach the limit.

Split into sections

Sometimes, especially in certain fields like medical research, the sections described in the paragraph abstracts (intro/purpose, method, results, conclusion) are split into separate sections. They often look like this:

  • Introduction: This is the introductory sentence.
  • Methods: This is where the methods are mentioned.
  • Results: Wow look at this amazing trend we found.
  • Discussion/Conclusion: We have solved all of science!

In this form, there is still a word limit that the journal will prescribe in their style guide. The word count also counts for the entire abstract, so each section is usually a sentence or two. What makes these abstracts more popular with readers is that they are easier to find information. You don’t have to figure out which sentence says what. You can just go directly to the information.

Graphical abstract

This type is really a subtype of the previous two types. In addition to either a paragraph abstract or a section abstract, the authors also include a picture that summarises the article as well. Here is an example of a paragraph article with a summary image as well:

Writing an abstract – things to keep in mind

When you are writing an abstract, remember that it is your “marketing publication” for your actual publication. Some people think that articles are read more than 10 times as often as the article itself, so it is important to grab someone’s attention at this point to draw them in.

Abstracts may also appear separately from their articles, so they need to be able to stand on their own. As a result, abstracts never refer to other things in the article and almost never go in detail. The first reason is because they don’t have enough space. The second reason is that going into detail is not the point of the abstract! It needs to catch a reader’s attention. If it converts a passerby into a reader, it has done its job.

This next tip is a bit of a double-edged sword: numbers. Numbers are a great way to give a lot of information using very little space. “We found a large amount of very concentrated solution” vs “We found a 9L of 9 g/L solution”. The second option saves a lot of space and gives us even more information than the first one. I recommend using numbers whenever and wherever you can. However some journals in their style guide ban numbers from abstracts, so make sure to read the style guide before you write your abstract!

Want to learn more about Scientific English? You can find some more articles here. If you want to see more information about what goes into each part of an article, you can read that here: Parts of a Scientific Manuscript.

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Interested in learning more about Scientific English? You can read a brief post on the History and Use of Scientific English here. More posts on Scientific English are available on the Scientific English page.

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