If you ever write any sort of research paper, you are likely to need an abstract. But what is an abstract for? What should go into one? What makes one effective? This resource will provide a brief guide.
What is an abstract?
Abstracts are short summaries of longer works, most commonly used with research papers, theses and dissertations, conference papers, and other published academic works. They have two main purposes. First, abstracts allow readers who may be interested in the topic to see a preview of the paper and decide if they want to read the whole thing. Second, many online databases use abstracts to index longer works, and therefore they often contain keywords and phrases that allow for easier searching.
While abstracts are used most commonly for papers the writer seeks to publish, sometimes professors will ask for abstracts as part of an assignment. Whether or not you actually plan to publish something, you may still benefit from knowing how to write an abstract.
What should go in an abstract?
There are a number of elements expected in an abstract, though some of these may shift depending on the kind of paper you're writing.
Research question/overall purpose of the study
What is your paper about? What did you decide to study? If you had a specific research question, what is that question?
- Example: This paper will investigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on attitudes towards remote and flexible work. Has the pandemic made workers more open to or accepting of remote or flexible work? Are they more likely to seek those opportunities in the future, even after circumstances no longer require that environment?
Background that shows why this topic is important or useful
What do readers need to know about this issue? Why is it important? Why should readers care about your study?
- Example: Remote and flexible work options may assist American workers with family or health needs, but there have previously been few of these options available. This paper will explore whether the COVID-19 pandemic, which required a dramatic expansion of remote and flexible work options in many workplaces and industries, is likely to change the likelihood of workers choosing or requesting remote and flexible options after the pandemic is over.
What did you actually do? Who were your participants?
- Example: We used a random telephone survey of 500 households across the United States, asking whether participants worked remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic and whether they would be willing to work remotely in the future.
Findings and conclusions
What did you actually find? What does that mean for your research question? What greater impact might it have on your field?
- Example: We found that workers were significantly more accepting of remote and flexible work due to their experiences during the pandemic, and many would choose or request remote or flexible alternatives in the future. These results indicate that attitudes towards remote and flexible work are changing enough that companies may attract and retain more workers by providing those options.
Journals will often ask for keywords to go with the abstract for indexing and searching, and professors may ask for them as well. What were some of the key terms most relevant to your paper? These should represent the content of your manuscript and be specific to your field or subfield.
- Example: Keywords: remote work, flexible work, COVID-19 impact on work environment
This example abstract did involve some original research, but not all abstracts you might write will. Literature reviews might briefly touch on how sources were identified for the review, but the research design will likely otherwise not be a priority. Papers that are more of an argument than a description of research might set up the argument rather than discuss findings. Your abstract should highlight the important parts of your paper.
Important things to note about abstracts:
There are a number of things you should keep in mind when writing an abstract.
Choosing the most important elements of the paper
- As I just mentioned, your abstract should highlight the most important things about your paper. Because abstracts are short, this means including only the most important things. You'll probably have a lot of background to your research, but can you summarize it in a sentence or two that will give readers an idea of why you're researching this topic? You might end up with many findings, but are there some that are more important for your research question than others?
- Abstracts are concise, usually between 150-300 words (either your professor or the publication you're submitting to may have more specific word requirements). Potential readers are likely going through many abstracts to find papers useful to them, so shorter abstracts make it easier for readers to read and identify those papers.
Structure should probably be a condensed version of the paper, following the same basic sections in the same order
- The structure of your abstract should be similar to the structure of your paper for a couple reasons. First, you organized your paper the way you did for a reason, and that reason is probably that it followed a logical order; using the same structure for the abstract will therefore also follow the same logical order. Second, using the same basic structure for both the paper and the abstract will enhance their cohesiveness with each other.
Written in present or simple past tense, not future
- Your abstract should be describing something you've already done -- research you conducted, an argument you made -- so it should be written in simple past tense. Present tense is also acceptable when discussing statements of general fact. It's best not to use a future tense, unless your abstract is for something like a research proposal, which you have not yet actually done.
Focus on your own research rather than citing others
- Your abstract should be about your paper. You may be tempted to cite other sources that contributed to your work, but you should generally avoid that unless your paper is in some way about another source (such as the point of the paper is extending or rebutting that source). You generally want to keep the focus on your own research or argument.
It should be one of the very last things you write, because by then you'll know the shape of the entire paper
- Your teachers may have advised you to write the introduction of your paper last because then you'll be sure of what your paper is actually about -- you should write the abstract last for basically the same reason. As you do your research and write your paper, elements of what you might include and highlight in your abstract might shift. You might realize that you're missing a major argument and need to do more research or come to realize that something you thought was important isn't really. You will probably therefore find it easier to write the abstract last or at least towards the end of drafting your paper
McCombes, S. (2020, July 7). How to write an abstract. Scribbr. https://www.scribbr.com/dissertation/abstract/
The Writing Center. (n.d.) Abstracts. University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/abstracts/
Springer. (2020). Title, Abstract and Keywords. Springer Nature. https://www.springer.com/gp/authors-editors/authorandreviewertutorials/writing-a-journal-manuscript/title-abstract-and-keywords/10285522