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How to Write an Abstract: The LetPub Guide


Dr. Avriel Licciardi, Research Communications Strategist

February 2021

What is an abstract?

An abstract is a fully self-contained summary of a scientific manuscript, often considered the most important part of a research paper. In a single or structured paragraph of ~100-300 words, the abstract is responsible for previewing your entire paper—from why the research was conducted, what the objectives were, if and how those objectives were achieved, and the primary findings—in an engaging yet professional and scientifically accurate manner. Moreover, the fate of your manuscript’s publication and subsequent citations depend on your abstract’s ability to grab a reader’s attention and accurately convey your science.

Essential abstract components: A checklist

Regardless of discipline, the basic components of an abstract consist of background or motivation, a problem statement, and the research approach, results, and implications. Each section is typically a few sentences or less, although there is room for creativity depending on journal requirements. Importantly, these components may be merged or segue into each other. Review the following guidelines for each general abstract section for essential tips in drafting your next manuscript or conference abstract:

1. Motivation

Why should the reader care about the problem and the results? If intrinsic interest in the problem is not obvious, address motivation first. If your work represents incremental progress on a widely recognized problem, place the problem statement first to indicate which aspect of the larger problem you are focusing on. This section should include the importance of your work and the impact it might have if successful.

2. Problem statement

What problem are you trying to solve? What hypothesis are you testing? Is your research aimed at filling a practical, scientific, or theoretical gap? Answer these questions in this part of your abstract, and importantly, avoid jargon. Note that in some cases, it is appropriate to put the problem statement before the motivation, but this works only if most readers already understand why the problem is important.

3. Approach and methods

What did you do to obtain your results and address the problem you previously outlined? What important assumptions did you make? Be specific and concise. Note that methods can often be combined with results.

4. Results

This section should reveal what you learned from your research approach, especially your most important findings. Cite numerical values for your results, if appropriate, but do not provide values that can be easily misinterpreted. Avoid vague qualifiers such as “very” and “small”, or “significant” unless supported by rigorous statistical analysis. Remember, you do not have space to fully explain all the caveats in your abstract, so mention only the most important findings here.

5. Implication and conclusions

What are the broad implications of your results? This is where you want to hook the reader into examining the rest of your paper. The concluding lines of the abstract should lead into the first paragraph of the introduction without repeating what has already been said. Most importantly, state the implications of your research to the field of study in which you are working, and if there are broader applications, those should also be mentioned.

Additional abstract tips

While following the abstract section guidelines above will likely increase the chance that readers will be motivated to learn more about your research, there are additional points to consider:

• Meeting the abstract word count limitation is non-negotiable. Simply put, if your abstract is too long or not formatted correctly (structured vs. unstructured), your manuscript will very likely be rejected or deemed unacceptable. Check your journal guidelines for abstract requirements.
• Any major uncertainties or limitations of the results should be stated, if only by using cautious words such as “might”, “could”, “may”, and “seem.”
Include keywords or common phrases in your abstract that readers in your field may search for, as this may assist your manuscript in jumping to the top of a search result listing. Keywords are also used to assign papers to journal editors and reviewers, which can be extremely important regarding the fate of your manuscript.
• The context of your abstract should match the journal that you’re submitting to. In other words, consider your audience when writing the abstract; certain terms or concepts may require background or definition depending on your chosen publication outlet.

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