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Publish, don't perish – Instalment 25

Amazing abstracts

Academic journals, conference organizers, and thesis committees often require authors or presenters to provide abstracts of their work. On the face of it, these short descriptions of the article's intent and content seem easy enough to create. Often, though, abstracts allow you only 100-300 words to get to the point of your article and to "sell" your work, requiring you to think carefully about each bit of content you include.

Abstracts serve researchers and readers in several ways, including:

  • Providing pre-publication information about a given work, which can be useful for current awareness.
  • Providing searchable text for electronic databases, which can maximize the findability of a work by including specific key terminology.
  • Providing a summary of a work, which can help researchers evaluate the relevance of the full article (and decide whether to request it).
  • Providing journal readers with information that helps them decide whether it is worth their time to continue reading the full article.

On the face of it, who better to produce an abstract than you, its author? Who knows your work best; who knows your main points and arguments? Unfortunately, though, we are sometimes too close to our own work to gauge whether we are creating an effective abstract. You will need to cultivate the ability to step back and see whether your abstract serves all the purposes for which it is intended.

Follow directions

As with every aspect of the publishing process, following directions offers your best chance at creating a successful abstract. If your journal or publisher provides guidelines on what it looks for in an abstract, be sure to include each requested element. Look at any examples the publisher provides (or at the published abstracts in previous issues or in online databases) and imitate that format exactly.

Some journals will ask that your abstract include a separate list of important keywords and key phrases that can later be used in indexing and retrieving your article. Others will ask that you incorporate these into the body of the abstract itself. Again, following directions here will increase the later findability (and therefore the use and citation) of your work. Think about the terms that searchers might use to look for your article, and be sure to include these in your list.

These keywords, and the abstract itself, can also be used in the decision-making process when an editor assigns your article draft to a particular reviewer. Make sure that you accurately represent your work, so that the right reviewer is likely to receive it. Make sure that your abstract is understandable by non-specialists, so that an editor who may not have expertise in your area can see what you are saying and assign your work to the reviewer who does.

Be sure to stay within the publisher's word-count limits. Otherwise, you face either rejection or the possibility that someone will later make cuts to meet the word count – with little regard for the resulting meaningfulness of your abstract. Use the space available to you, however; publishers generally set word counts with the expectation that this is the "right" amount of space to describe articles of this type, and an extremely short abstract probably does a poor job of providing sufficient information.

The cheese stands alone

Always remember that your abstract needs to be able to stand alone, apart from the work it describes. It may be the only piece of information a researcher views about your work, or may be separated from the larger work in a non-full-text database. Readers need to be able to understand your abstract without referring to the text of the full article.

For this reason, any abstract needs to be:

  • Precise
  • Concise
  • Clearly structured
  • Thorough.

While abstracts are inherently short, precision and logic will allow you to be thorough in incorporating the key concepts and content from your work. This is not the place to go into detail on your methodology or thoughts or process; merely present your main points as concisely as possible. Be sure to include every main point. If you run out of room, you may need to cut some less-necessary descriptive text.

Some of the pointers in the Instalment 24 may be useful in making your abstracts more concise. Think particularly about using active tense and cutting out excess verbiage; not only can this make your writing stronger in general, but it can help you stay within word count limits while still making your important points.


Look at the main components of your finished paper or article, and use these again to create a coherent and useful abstract. Abstract components generally include:

  • The objective (or problem statement) and scope of your article. Just as you used your objective to create a coherent narrative when writing, include it here to show the objective of your article.
  • Methodology. A brief description of the methodology, or approach, you used.
  • Data. What results did you come up with? What type of data did you use? Are there any significant factors that affected your data?
  • Conclusion(s). What conclusion(s) did you draw from this data? Are there any larger implications?
  • Keywords. What are the important keywords and key phrases?

Each of these components is important in an effective abstract. Given limited space, focus most heavily on your main findings and conclusions, since these will be most interesting to later researchers. If your publisher provides guidance on which components they want to see or on which they want you to stress, follow its rules.

Marketers stress the concept of the "elevator speech", or a clear, concise description of your service or product that you can get out in the time it takes to ride in an elevator with a stranger. Your abstract is your elevator speech: make it intriguing enough so that people will want to spend more time with you (your work). Understanding how and why researchers, readers, and electronic databases make use of abstracts can help you make yours more effective. As always, keep your intended audience and publisher guidelines in mind. Welcome this opportunity to summarize and sell your work; a well-designed abstract can help you sell your work to an editor and convince researchers to read your published article.