Abstract writing is a skill every researcher, evaluator and scholar needs to acquire. This article:
- Explains the purpose of a research abstract and the different types of abstract you may need to write.
- Explores the key components of effective research abstracts, including their structure and format.
- Provides example abstracts.
- Describes several methods you can use to write your abstract.
- Includes a worksheet to help you think through the information your abstract will need to contain. Use it as often as you like to write more effective research abstracts.
2. What is an abstract?
An abstract is a written summary that describes a document or piece of work. A research abstract is a written summary that describes a research document or piece of research.
An effective research abstract provides a short version of a document and includes the key elements of that document or piece of research.
The information included in the summary varies according to the research field or discipline and the abstract’s purpose.
Scientific and social scientific abstracts tend to be highly structured and may include the scope, purpose, methodology, results and conclusion(s) of research, whereas arts and humanities abstracts may include the background, thesis or argument and conclusion(s).
Since an abstract describes a piece of work, it does not provide a review, critique, criticism, evaluation or other form of judgement. It simply states what a document or piece of research contains.
3. Purpose of an abstract
An abstract’s main purpose is to show the reader what a document is about so that they can decide whether it is relevant to their needs and, therefore, whether to invest their time reading the document itself.
A secondary, but nevertheless important, element is to aid discovery. Search engines, databases and other information repositories rely heavily on abstracts, together with the title of a work and keywords that also describe the research, to help potential readers identify, locate and retrieve that work.
4. What types of documents should have an abstract?
Any type of document where a content summary would be useful. For researchers, evaluators and scholars, the most common are:
- Journal articles
- Research reports
- Funding proposals
- Theses and dissertations
- Conference paper proposals
- Workshop or seminar proposals
- Book/book chapter proposals
5. Types of abstract
There are really only two types of abstract that you will need to be able to write: descriptive and informative.
Descriptive abstracts usually indicate the kind of information presented in the overall document. They tend to be short, often no more than 100 words. This brevity usually means the description provides no more than an outline of what the reader could expect if they were to read the full document. Most will indicate the purpose of the document and give an idea of its scope. Some may expand on this to indicate methods used.
Example descriptive abstract
This report outlines the framework used by the author to present and consolidate the previously scattered theories and documents of A N Othersome. General guidelines are put forward on how to apply the described framework to theories and works by authors writing in similar genres. (45 words)
Informative abstracts are probably the most common type of abstract found in research and they are often the most difficult to write. In contrast to the descriptive abstract, informative abstracts provide the reader with more information, including purpose, scope, methods, the main results/findings and usually a conclusion. Some may also include recommendations for further research and/or implications for theory or practice. The aim is to provide the main points or essential elements in a clear and concise way. Length varies, but since this type of abstract needs to include more information than its descriptive counterpart, it is likely to contain 250 words or more.
Example informative abstract
Informative abstracts may contain headings or consist of a single paragraph, like this one containing exactly 250 words showing how it may look on a page or screen. Depending on how many components you need to include, your abstract should answer several questions. Why is the research reported in the article important? Why should it be of interest to the person(s) reading your abstract? What problem does the research address? How does the research address this problem? What frameworks or methods were used to collect and analyse your data? What were the results or findings? This is often where informative abstracts fail because there is often not enough information to help a reader decide whether to read the full paper. You do not have to report all your results in the abstract, but you do need to give your audience a flavour of what you found and what they can expect to learn if they read further. Many academic journals will require you to draw some conclusion related to the problem stated at the beginning. Others may also require some recommendation(s) based on the conclusion, perhaps for further research, to highlight implications for practice, or provide a statement about how your research adds to the body of knowledge on the subject addressed by your paper. Depending on the journal, the abstract may consist of a single paragraph, or a series of short paragraphs, one or two sentences long, presented under specific headings such as: Introduction, Problem, Methods, Results, Conclusion, Implications.
6. Components of an effective research abstract
While the content of an abstract is unique to the work itself, there are some important components to bear in mind when writing. An effective research abstract should:
- Provide the key elements of a document
- Give a reader the essential information about a piece of work
- Give the most important information first
- Be clear and concise
- Not include information the reader will not find in the document.
7. Structure and format
The structure and format of an abstract is usually governed by the nature of the work it relates to. Your field, discipline or subject area plays a crucial part in the expectations and conventions concerning how the content is structured and laid out. Abstracts in psychology or medical research, for example, often contain elements that do not appear in studies of literature or history and vice versa. However, all abstracts have some elements in common and some components that you can choose to include or leave out. If you are writing a paper for a specific journal, preparing an abstract for a conference presentation, or finishing up your thesis or dissertation, you will probably have guidelines to follow and we would advise you to read them carefully and present your work accordingly so it stands a far better chance of being judged on merit alone.
To write an effective research abstract, you should base the content on the research process itself. This process provides a structure that underpins the main components of any abstract. The key elements are:
Reason for writing
Why is this research important? Why would the reader care or be interested in this research?
Problem or issue
What problem or issue does this particular work attempt to address or solve? What is its main argument or claim? What is the scope of this work?
How does this work address the issue or problem of interest? What frameworks, models or approaches are used? What kinds of evidence were used in the research?
What were the results? Some abstracts will include specific data, while others may describe findings in a more general way. Summarizing the results is often one of the most difficult parts of writing any abstract, but do not leave your audience guessing. Tell them what you found.
Was the research successful? Did it answer the problem it set out to address?
What do the results mean for your readers? What changes should be made to practice or theory as a result of your findings? How and what does this research add to existing knowledge?
8. Ways to write an abstract
Usually, the person who has written the entire work also writes the abstract. However, research life, with collaborative projects, collective works and multi-authored papers, means the choice of who writes an abstract for a particular research work is not always straightforward.
The approach you take to writing an abstract will depend on how familiar you are with the work you are trying to summarize. Either you will be writing an abstract for a work that you have authored, or contributed to, or you will be abstracting someone else’s work.
Summarizing your own writing
The main pitfall with abstracting your own writing is that you may become too familiar with it. Sounds crazy, right? But often one of the hardest parts is trying to distil the essential information from a lengthy document that you may have been working on for weeks, months or even years.
Here are some ways to approach the task.
Use section headings
If you are writing an abstract for a journal article or conference paper where you have specific guidelines that include section headings for the abstract, you can list those headings in a blank document and use them to structure your abstract.
If you don’t have specific headings to use, you may find it helpful to start with some, such as the first three or four from the research process list: reason for writing, problem, methods, results. Under each heading, write one or two sentences that summarize your central ideas and findings.
You can also use our ‘How to write an effective research abstract worksheet’ as a guide.
Copy and paste
Each of the headings of your abstract’s draft should correspond to one or more sections of the overall work. Take the main document and highlight individual sentences or key phrases from each section that best summarize or encapsulate the main message or key findings and copy and paste them into the appropriate section of the abstract. Once you have something written under each section, you can revise the wording and flow to create a unified and consolidated paragraph.
Reverse outlining is the process of working backwards from a full document to an outline. Most of the time, a writer uses an outline to create a skeleton of the structure or the main points to cover in a document, expanding on each point until the document is written. To create a reverse outline, you take each section or paragraph of the full document in turn and, in a separate document, write down the central idea or main point of each. If a paper has 20 paragraphs, you would have around 20 sentences or key points within the outline. You can then group those key points into clusters or themes and use those as the basis for the abstract.
Summarizing another person’s writing
When summarizing another person’s writing, you have to identify the key information that a reader will want to know.
Identify the key points
The first place to look is the document’s introduction. Highlight key sentences or phrases that indicate what the document is trying to achieve. Next, skip to the end and read the conclusion. This should be a one or two sentence summary of what the document set out to achieve and whether or not it achieved it. If you cannot identify the main aim or objective of the paper and the research on which it is based from the conclusion, then it should be stated towards the end of the introduction or methodology section.
Highlight summary sentences
Once you have a good idea of the document’s purpose and the main aim or objective of the research it describes, read through the rest of the document and highlight any sentences, phrases or key terms that summarize how the study was conducted, what methods were used and what were the main results. When you have the ‘bare bones’ of the information, put it in a separate document. If you haven’t already done so, try to sequence the information into a logical or meaningful order then rewrite those sentences using your own words.
9. Beyond the first draft
Whichever approach you take, by now you will have made substantial progress towards the finished abstract. If you can, set the first draft of your abstract aside for a while. As with any writing, most drafts will benefit from editing and revision. When you are satisfied with the overall structure, check that the sentences flow well. Take out any unnecessary words and try to remove any repetitive phrases. Substitute weak or passive words with strong, active, meaningful ones.
The aim is to produce a clear, concise and accurate summary, formatted for its intended readership.
10. Example research abstracts
Example A: Scientific Abstract – Health Care
Belling R, McLaren S, Boudioni M & Woods L (2012). Pan-London Tuberculosis Services: A Service Evaluation, BMC Health Services Research, 12 (203), DOI: 10.1186/1472-6963-12-203
London has the largest proportion of tuberculosis (TB) cases of any western European capital, with almost half of new cases drug-resistant. Prevalence varies considerably between and within boroughs with research suggesting inadequate control of TB transmission in London. Economic pressures may exacerbate the already considerable challenges for service organisation and delivery within this context. This paper presents selected findings from an evaluation of London’s TB services’ organisation, delivery, professional workforce and skill mix, intended to support development of a strategic framework for a pan-London TB service. These may also interest health service professionals and managers in TB services in the UK, other European cities and countries and in services currently delivered by multiple providers operating independently.
Objectives were: 1) To establish how London’s TB services are structured and delivered in relation to leadership, management, organisation and delivery, coordination, staffing and support; 2) To identify tools/models for calculating skill mix as a basis for identifying skill mix requirements in delivering TB services across London; 3) To inform a strategic framework for the delivery of a pan-London TB service, which may be applicable to other European cities. The multi-method service audit evaluation comprised documentary analysis, semi-structured interviews with TB service users (n = 10), lead TB health professionals and managers (n = 13) representing London’s five sectors and focus groups with TB nurses (n = 8) and non-London network professionals (n = 2).
Findings showed TB services to be mainly hospital-based, with fewer community-based services. Documentary analysis and professionals’ interviews suggested difficulties with early access to services, low suspicion index amongst some GPs and restricted referral routes. Interviews indicated lack of managed accommodation for difficult to treat patients, professional workforce shortages, a need for strategic leadership, nurse-led clinics and structured career paths for TB nurses and few social care/outreach workers to support patients with complex needs.
This paper has identified key issues relating to London’s TB services’ organisation, delivery, professional workforce and skill mix. The majority of these present challenges which need to be addressed as part of the future development of a strategic framework for a pan-London TB service. More consistent strategic planning/co-ordination and sharing of best practice is needed, together with a review of pan-London TB workforce development strategy, encompassing changing professional roles, skills development needs and patient pathways. These findings may be relevant with the development of TB services in other European cities.
(Link to full paper: http://bmchealthservres.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1472-6963-12-203
Creative Commons License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/)
Example B: Journal Abstract – Learning and Education
Belling R (2009). The Influence of Psychological Type on Transfer of Managers’ Learning, Journal of Psychological Type, 69 (8), 101–110.
This paper reports a study exploring the influence of psychological type, other individual characteristics, and workplace features on business executives’ attempts to transfer learning from formal management development programs back to their workplaces. A longitudinal survey of 234 executives was conducted using questionnaires and in-depth interviews. Psychological type, together with six other individual characteristics and seven workplace features, was found to be significantly associated with perceived barriers and facilitators to transfer. Psychological type was also found to have the highest number of significant associations, not only with barriers and facilitators to transfer, but also with learning outcomes and conditions required for transfer to occur.
Example C: Abstract – Doctoral Thesis
Belling R (2000). Transferring Managerial Learning Back to the Workplace: The Influence of Personality and the Workplace Environment (Doctoral thesis, Cranfield University, School of Management, UK).
This thesis identifies the influences of individual characteristics, particularly psychological type preferences, and workplace environment features, on managers’ perceptions of the barriers and facilitators to transferring their learning from management development programmes. In doing so, it provides information and insights to help increase understanding of the transfer of learning process through the building of a model of transfer.
Guided by a Realist perspective, this research was conducted using longitudinal survey methodology, incorporating both questionnaires and interviews. The survey gathered data at three time points, establishing a chronological ‘Base Map’ representing programme participants’ journeys through four kinds of learning event/experience, their expectations of those programmes, resulting learning outcomes and applications of learning back in their workplaces. This research identified 26 perceived barriers and 17 perceived facilitators to transfer of learning from 17 organisations, incorporating a wide range of workplace environments, described how these barriers and facilitators operate and identified the need to take the nature of the learning event/experience into account to provide a meaningful context for the transfer of learning outcomes.
This research presents a series of ‘Route Maps’, highlighting the significant associations between individual characteristics, workplace features and elements of the learning and transfer processes, based on programme type. Psychological type was found to influence perceptions of barriers and facilitators to transfer and is associated with critical elements in the transfer process.
This thesis contributes to theory and practice about transfer of learning from management development programmes and has implications for organisations, programme designers and future participants on such programmes.