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How to... write an abstract

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Article Sections

  1. What is an abstract?
  2. Some examples of abstracts
  3. How not to write an abstract

What is an abstract?

A definition

An abstract is a succinct summary of a longer piece of work, usually academic in nature, which is published in isolation from the main text and should therefore stand on its own and be understandable without reference to the longer piece. It should report the latter's essential facts, and should not exaggerate or contain material that is not there.

Its purpose is to act as a reference tool (for example in a library abstracting service), enabling the reader to decide whether or not to read the full text.

Two common reasons for writing an abstract are

  1. to summarize a longer piece of work published as a journal article, thesis, book or web page, an existing article for the purposes of a journal,
  2. or to submit an application to write a paper for a conference.

In both cases, you will be given specific guidelines as to how to write the abstract including a maximum word count from either the relevant publisher or the organizer of the conference; those for Emerald are set out below. Conference papers are usually selected on the basis of abstracts: see tips below.

How to go about the writing process

  1. Start by writing a statement of the paper's purpose, which should be as succinct as possible. If you include background keep this to a minimum and only include such information as to provide a context.

  2. Summarize the paper, reporting its main facts. Remember the following points:

    • Follow the chronology of the paper and use its headings as guidelines.
    • Do not include unnecessary detail, as in the first example in "How not to write an abstract".
    • You are writing for an audience "in the know" – you can use the technical language of your discipline or profession, providing you communicate your meaning clearly, and bear in mind that you are writing to an international audience.
    • Make sure that what you write "flows" properly, that there are "connecting words" (e.g. consequently, moreover, for example, the benefits of this study, as a result, etc.) and/or the points you make are not disjointed but follow on from one another.
    • Use the active rather than the passive voice, e.g. "The study tested" rather than "It was tested in this study".
    • The style of writing should be dense, and sentences will probably be longer than usual.

  3. You should by now have a draft, which will probably be too long. Here are some points to remember in cutting:

    • cut out any unnecessary words that do not add to the meaning, but
    • make sure that the abstract is not so "cut" as to be unreadable; use full sentences, direct and indirect articles, connecting works, etc. An abstract should use continuous prose, not notes.

  4. Read through your draft, making sure that it covers the main points listed above, and that there are no grammatical, spelling or typographical errors, also that it "flows" properly.

  5. If possible, get a colleague to read through your abstract as a form of "peer review".

  6. Submit!

If you have difficulty with the general purpose statement or with summarizsing your article, it may be because the article's general concept is not that clear, or perhaps your research design or approach needs revisiting.

Instructions for writing a structured abstract for Emerald

Emerald has introduced a new format for article abstracts intended to help researchers by consistently providing the most useful information. Each abstract is made up of a number of set elements. An example is provided at the foot of this page.

1. Write the abstract

To produce a structured abstract for the journal and Emerald database, please complete the following fields about your paper. There are four fields which are obligatory (Purpose, Design/methodology/approach, Findings and Originality/value); the other three (Research limitations/implications, Practical implications, and Social implications) may be omitted if they are not applicable to your paper.

Abstracts should contain no more than 250 words. Write concisely and clearly. The abstract should reflect only what appears in the original paper.

Purpose
What are the reason(s) for writing the paper or the aims of the research?

Design/methodology/approach
How are the objectives achieved? Include the main method(s) used for the research. What is the approach to the topic and what is the theoretical or subject scope of the paper?

Findings
What was found in the course of the work? This will refer to analysis, discussion, or results.

Research limitations/implications (if applicable)
If research is reported on in the paper this section must be completed and should include suggestions for future research and any identified limitations in the research process.

Practical implications (if applicable)
What outcomes and implications for practice, applications and consequences are identified? How will the research impact upon the business or enterprise? What changes to practice should be made as a result of this research? What is the commercial or economic impact? Not all papers will have practical implications.

Social implications (if applicable)
What will be the impact on society of this research? How will it influence public attitudes? How will it influence (corporate) social responsibility or environmental issues? How could it inform public or industry policy? How might it affect quality of life? Not all papers will have social implications.

Originality/value
What is new in the paper? State the value of the paper and to whom.

2. Using keywords

Using keywords is a vital part of abstract writing, because of the practice of retrieving information electronically: keywords act as the search term. Use keywords that are specific, and that reflect what is essential about the paper. Put yourself in the position of someone researching in your field: what would you look for? Consider also whether you can use any of the current "buzzwords".

3. Choose a category for the paper

Pick the category which most closely describes your paper. We understand that some papers can fit into more than one category but it is necessary to assign your paper to one of the categories – these are listed and will be searchable within the database:

New! Instructions for writing a structured abstract for Emerald Emerging Markets Case Studies

Emerald Emerging Markets Case Studies is a new product launch for 2011. Emerald has introduced a new format for teaching case study abstracts intended to help researchers by consistently providing the most useful information. Each abstract is made up of a number of set elements. There is an example abstract in section 2 of this guide.

1. Write the abstract

To produce a structured abstract for Emerald Emerging Markets Case Studies, please complete the following fields about your paper. There are five points that need to be covered in the case study structured abstract, and two further optional points, all listed below.

Optional:

Abstracts should contain no more than 250 words. Write concisely and clearly. The abstract should reflect only what appears in the original paper.

2. Using keywords

Using keywords is a vital part of abstract writing, because of the practice of retrieving information electronically: keywords act as the search term. Use keywords that are specific, and that reflect what is essential about the paper. Put yourself in the position of someone researching in your field: what would you look for? Consider also whether you can use any of the current "buzzwords".

Tips for writing abstracts for conference papers

The difficulty here is that you will probably be writing the abstract as a preamble to the actual paper, rather than subsequent to it. Here are some points to remember:

  1. Clarify in your own mind what is the purpose of the paper: what it is that you are going to do.

  2. Look carefully at the themes of the conference: note those that apply and frame your paper accordingly.

  3. Very often, the submission procedure will dictate the format and the number of words of the abstract. For example:

    • Title
    • Name of presenter, contact details
    • Category of presentation (e.g. workshop, research paper, short paper, poster etc.)
    • Conference themes addressed.
    • Keywords that will help people deciding whether or not to participate to understand its focus.
    • Objectives/intended outcomes and activities for participants
    • The abstract.

  4. Stick closely to the length given. You will often have no choice in this matter, because if you submit electronically you will find yourself cut off in mid sentence as you reach the required limit.

  5. When writing the abstract, ask yourself the following questions:

    • What is the purpose of my paper? This should, as with any abstract, be a general definition statement about the objectives of your paper.
    • What approach am I using? I.e. am I reviewing the literature, describing a case study, supporting a research hypothesis, and if the latter, what is my research design and research methodology?
    • What are my findings?
    • What is the import of my findings?

  6. Choose your keywords carefully, making sure that they match the themes of the conference.

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