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Writing an article abstract

An abstract is usually the first element of an article that the reader will go to, so it's important to get it right. Find all the support you need on preparing and writing an abstract here. 

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What is an abstract?

An abstract is a succinct summary of a larger piece of work that aims to persuade readers to read the full document – essentially, it acts as a shop window, enticing people to step inside.

Typically, abstracts are written to accompany a journal research article or book serial chapter, but you are also likely to be asked for an abstract when applying to write a paper for a conference. In this guide you will find tips to help you prepare for both. They include specific guidelines on how the abstract should be written and presented, including a maximum word count. 

Why is an abstract important?

Typically, your abstract is the first element of your published work that anyone sees. It provides the ideal channel to convince them that your work is worth their time investment. For example, editors will use it to help them decide whether to send your submission out for peer review, and reviewers will refer to it when deciding whether to accept that review invite. Unless you’ve published your work open access, the title and abstract are the only parts of an article that are freely available to everyone. The reader will decide whether the rest of your article is interesting to them while they are reading your abstract. And, the more researchers who read your work, the more chance you have it will be cited in further research.

With so much at stake, it’s well worth taking the time to craft a strong and compelling abstract. 

How to write a structured abstract

Let’s start with a few essential points to remember when writing your abstract. You should:

  • Report the essential facts contained within the document
  • Not exaggerate or include material that doesn’t feature in the main text
  • Avoid abbreviations that are only explained in the main text. Your abstract should be able to stand alone
  • Not dwell on the previous literature – this is a summary of your work

Many authors recommend waiting until the rest of your paper or chapter is complete before writing your abstract. Whenever you decide to write it, your abstract should be a succinct statement that gives the reader context. Most journal author guidelines set a maximum of 250 words, including keywords and article classification. The following points should always be featured:

  • Purpose: This is where you explain ‘why’ you undertook this study. If you are presenting new or novel research, explain the problem that you have solved. If you are building upon previous research, briefly explain why you felt it was important to do so. This is your opportunity to let readers know why you chose to study this topic or problem and its relevance. Let them know what your key argument or main finding is.
  • Study design/methodology/approach: This is ‘how’ you did it. Let readers know exactly what you did to reach your results. For example, did you undertake interviews? Did you carry out an experiment in the lab? What tools, methods, protocols or datasets did you use? 
  • Findings: Here you can explain ‘what’ you found during your study, whether it answers the problem you set out to explore, and whether your hypothesis was confirmed. You need to be very clear and direct and give exact figures, rather than generalise.  It’s important not to exaggerate or create an expectation that your paper won’t fulfill. 
  • Originality/value: This is your opportunity to provide readers with an analysis of the value of your results. It’s a good idea to ask colleagues whether your analysis is balanced and fair and again, it’s important not to exaggerate. You can also conjecture what future research steps could be. 

The following three items should be included, if relevant to your paper:

  • Research limitations/implications
  • Practical implications
  • Social implications

Follow the chronology of the paper, using headlines as guidelines if necessary. Make sure there is a consistent flow of information.

The language should be active rather than passive, e.g. “we carried out an analysis”, rather than “an analysis was carried out”. It’s also important to use relevant keywords and technical language to help potential readers find your paper. What are keywords? These are the words or phrases a researcher might use when searching for a paper on this topic. You can find out more in our Make your research easy to find with SEO guide.

Choose a category for the paper that best describes it. This may be:

  • Research paper
  • Viewpoint
  • Technical paper
  • Conceptual paper
  • Case study
  • Literature review
  • General review

Make sure to edit, review and peer review to find and correct any grammatical, spelling or typographical errors. You also want to ensure that there is consistency between the information in your abstract and paper.

Tips for writing abstracts for conference papers

This is slightly different to writing a general abstract and in this scenario the abstract is likely to be written before the paper has been prepared. A few tips:

  • Clarify in your own mind the purpose of the paper
  • Look at the themes of the conference and keep them in mind as you write
  • Ask yourself the following: What approach am I using? – Is it a review, description or supporting a hypothesis? What are my findings? What is the significance of my findings?
  • Quite often, the submission procedure will dictate the format and number of words your abstract should follow – make sure you stick to any word limit given
  • Choose your keywords carefully, ensuring the key themes of the conference are referenced

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