How to Write an Abstract for a Research Paper

A good abstract has the following characteristics:

 

  • Structure. Use an introduction-body-conclusion structure in which the parts of the report are discussed in order: purpose, findings, conclusions, recommendations.

 

  • Accurate. You must ensure that the abstract correctly reflects the purpose and content of the article. Do not include information in the abstract that does not appear in the main text (i.e. don’t include anything new). The abstract should also follow the chronology (order) of the main report. Comparing the abstract with an outline of the headings used in the article is a good way to ensure that it is both accurate and in the correct order.

 

  • Non-evaluative. The abstract should report rather than evaluate. It is a factual summary of what is in the report, therefore do not comment on what is in the main body of the manuscript.

 

  • Coherent and readable. The language needs to be very clear and concise. There should not be excessive wordiness or information that is superfluous (i.e. not absolutely necessary or relevant). Use verbs rather than their noun equivalents, i.e. instead of an investigation of, use … the study investigated, and use the active rather than the passive voice – this is important to establish your authority and credibility as a researcher. So, for example, use phrases like The authors presented the results (active) rather than The results were presented (passive).

 

  • Don’t confuse verb tenses:

 

  • You should use the present tense to describe conclusions that you have drawn that continue to apply (in other words, they will continue to happen – a very simple example: the authors concluded that the sky is blue (not was blue).

  • Use the past tense to describe specific variables or outcomes in the research in question (e.g. Fifty out of 230 participants responded yes to question 1).

  • Use the future tense to project research and predict findings.

 

  • Concise. Be brief and use concise, punchy sentences, especially the lead sentence (no waffle – vague or wordy writing!). It does, however, need to be understandable for a wide audience. Ease your readers/audience into your topic and be sensitive to their needs and knowledge of your audience. What might seem perfectly obvious to you will often be brand new to your audience. Place the most important points at the beginning of the abstract and do not waste space by repeating the title. Aim to include the four or five most important concepts, findings or implications from the research. Aim to include in your abstract the specific words that you think your audience will use in their search of databases (key words).

 

If you are reporting about an empirical study, the abstract should describe:

 

  • The problem that you have investigated, in one sentence if possible;

  • The participants in the study, specifying their relevant characteristics, e.g. age, sex and ethnic/racial group;

  • The basic findings, including effect sizes and confidence intervals and/or statistical significance levels; and

  • The study’s conclusions and the implications or applications of the findings.

 

If you are writing an abstract for a literature review or meta-analysis, the abstract should describe:

 

  • The problem or relation(s) under investigation;

  • Study eligibility criteria;

  • Types of participant(s) included in the study;

  • Main results and any important moderators;

  • Conclusions (including limitations); and

  • Implications for theory, policy and/or practice.

 

In the case of a theory-oriented paper, the abstract should describe:

 

  • How the theory or model works and/or the principles on which it is based;

  • What phenomena the theory or model accounts for and linkages to empirical results.

 

An abstract for a methodological paper should describe:

 

  • The general class of methods being discussed;

  • The essential features of the proposed method; and

  • The range of application of the proposed method.

 

An abstract for a case study should describe:

 

  • The subject and relevant characteristics of the individual, group, community or organization presented in the paper;

  • The nature of or solution to the problem identified by the case study example; and

  • Questions raised for additional research or theory.

 

 

Do not exceed the abstract word limit for the journal to which you are submitting your article. Word limits vary from journal to journal but are typically in the range of 150 to 250 words.

 

Remember, a well-written abstract can often ensure wide publication, so if you want to ensure that your work has an impact on your field, you should work as hard as possible in presenting a precise and engaging abstract.  

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