Abstracts

Many research publications require an abstract, which is a brief synopsis of the text outlining its major points. As Samuel Johnson (1755) defined the term, an abstract is "a smaller quantity containing the virtue or power of a greater" (quoted in Oxford English Dictionary).

In terms of importance, abstracts tend to possess a prominent position among academic genres, as stated by Lorés (2004): "They [abstracts] constitute the gateway that leads readers to take up an article, journals to select contributions, or organisers of conferences to accept or reject papers" (p. 281).

In research writing, there are different formats for abstract writing. The information below is therefore of a general kind; students will need to check with their supervisors if their department has specific guidelines for abstract writing.

The length of the abstract will be decided by the supervisor, publisher, etc. Generally, though, the word count for abstracts for research articles is 100-200 words.

The function of the abstract is to inform prospective readers of the content and argument of the text, but also to attract readers to read the whole text. Vintzileos & Ananth (2010) describe the abstract as "the 'mirror' of the full manuscript" and that it is the part of an article that is most widely read (p. 344e2).

Hernon & Schwartz (2001) point out that abstract authors "need to adopt the art of persuasion—convincing a reader of the worth of reading the paper and perhaps subsequently of using and citing it" (p. 173). These persuasive powers must be coupled with accuracy and straightforwardness: after having read the abstract the reader should be able to understand the main points of the argument in the text that it sums up.

Types of abstract

Two common types of abstracts are article abstracts and conference abstracts.

Article abstract

Abstracts usually accompany research articles - in many journals the abstract is published as part of the article, between the title and the proper text. Abstract services and journal providers publish abstracts, which serve to inform prospective readers about the contents of the article.

At many departments, students writing their degree projects are required to include an abstract. These are sometimes made available in university repositories of degree projects and theses, such as LUP Student Papers at Lund University.

Conference abstracts

Another kind of abstract is the one that is submitted to conference CFPs (Call For Papers). Researchers wishing to present a paper at a conference send an abstract outlining their proposed paper.

A call for papers is sent out well in advance of the actual conference. Because of the long-term planning that is necessary for conference participants, conference abstracts are sometimes written before the papers they describe have been written. Therefore, they cannot always show the same level of specificity as will be found in article abstracts.

To attract the attention of conference organisers, conference abstracts need to be to the point. The author must show his or her command of the topic and the abstract has to be structured in a way that gives an idea of the organisation of the proposed presentation.

Format of abstracts

Graetz (1985) claims that the most common structure for abstracts is Problem-Method-Results-Conclusions, i.e. four parts. Many abstracts indeed more or less follow the IMRD structure, consisting of an introduction to the topic, a section on method and results, and finally a concluding part that discusses the findings presented in the article.

In a study of research abstracts within the field of applied linguistics, Santos (1996) identified a pattern consisting of five "moves". These moves constitute the transitions between the different stages of the abstract, each fulfilling a "communicative purpose" (Santos, p. 485).

In brief, the pattern that Santos identified looks like this:

  1. Situating the research
  2. Presenting the research
  3. Describing the methodology
  4. Summarising the results
  5. Discussing the research

(from Santos 1996 p. 485)

This pattern can be applied to abstracts in other fields as well. As seen in the example below, Santos's pattern highlights the transitions of the text. Not all stages will be found in every abstract, and the order of the moves may vary. Still, Santos's list of moves can be used as a kind of template for abstract writing.

Example: Abstract structure (click to expand/contract)

The abstract below comes from a study in zoology about group signatures in animal vocalisation (Townsend, Hollen & Manser, 2010).

In the left column, the five moves that are commonly found in abstract texts (Santos 1996) are listed, and the corresponding sections in our example are found in the right column.

Meerkat close calls encode group-specific signatures, but receivers fail to discriminate (Townsend, Hollen & Manser, 2010)

1. Situating the research 

A great deal of variation is known to underlie the vocalizations of animals. Calls can for example vary between individuals or between social and behavioural contexts. Calls also have the potential to vary between groups. Many group-living animals are known to produce stereotyped group-specific calls and such group signatures are thought to play a role in territory defence or indeed mate choice. Group signatures are generally found in long-distance call variants that work to maintain contact between group members, sometimes referred to as 'contact calls'. Cooperatively breeding, territorial meerkats, Suricata suricatta, also use contact calls, potentially to maintain social organization during foraging. However, these contact calls are generally quieter than long-distance calls in other species, and better described as 'close calls'.

2. Presenting the research 

We investigated whether these similar call types also possess group-specific signatures and whether any such variation is used by receivers.

3. Describing the methodology 

We recorded close calls from 71 individuals belonging to 10 meerkat groups.

4. Summarising the results 

We found that such close calls indeed possessed group signatures, but that this underlying variation did not appear to be used by receivers, possibly because meerkats use other sensory systems to identify nongroup members.

5. Discussing the research

 

We stress the importance of conducting playback experiments when investigating group-specific vocal signatures and use our results as a basis for predicting which animals may rely on group information encoded within close calls.


For further reading: Impact of the abstract (click to expand/contract)

In an editorial in Library & Information Science Research, Hernon & Schwartz (2010) outline the essentials of good abstract writing, focusing on the possible impact of a well written abstract:

To attract readers and entice them to read an entire paper, authors need to adopt the art of persuasion—convincing a reader of the worth of reading the paper and perhaps subsequently of using and citing it. The first step in this type of persuasion is to select a title for the paper that is inviting and not off-putting. Next comes the abstract, in which the author should speak in part to the value of the study and its importance. In essence, the author tries to encourage readers not to abandon the paper but to read on. The first sentence sets the stage and requires good (effective) writing to draw in the reader (who in some cases will be a peer reviewer). The abstract highlights the problem and discusses why readers should care about it. It also reviews the procedures, major findings, recommendations, and conclusions. The abstract might conclude with a few sentences about the value of the study. A good abstract may be the only opportunity to attract readers. For this reason, it is not an afterthought; time should go into its development and presentation.

(p. 173)


For further reading: Advice on abstract writing (click to expand/contract)

A number of articles and books have been written about discipline-specific abstract writing. Here are a few examples from the field of Medicine. Much of what is said in the articles is relevant within other fields as well.

Alexandrov and Hennerici (2007) take their point of departure in the statement that "Writing an abstract means to extract and summarize (think AB – absolutely, STR – straightforward, ACT – actual data presentation and interpretation)" (p. 257):  

  • Alexandrov, A.V. & Hennerici, M.G. (2007). Writing good abstracts. Cerebrovascular Diseases, 23, 256-259. [Access via LibHub]

Happell (2007) writes about abstracts for conference presentation within the field of nursing. Her article offers practical advice on how to write a good abstract, regarding both structure and content:

  • Happell, B. (2007). Hitting the target! A no tears approach to writing an abstract for a conference presentation. International Journal of Mental Health Nursing, 16, 447-453. [Access via LibHub]

Fraser, Fuller & Hutber (2009) offer practical guidance for conference goers:

  • Fraser, J., Fuller, L. & Hutber, G. (2009) Creating effective conference abstracts and posters in Biomedicine: 500 Tips. Oxford: Radcliffe Pub. [Access via Google Books]

Coad & Devitt (2005) offer advice on abstract writing for conferences and also on the review process, that is, what happens after the abstract has been submitted.

  • Coad, J. & Devitt, P. (2005). Research dissemination: The art of writing an abstract for conferences. Nurse Education on Practice, 6, 112-116. [Access via LibHub]