This article shall guide you on how to write a good abstract. It lists the four essential elements of a good abstract, ideal number of words, and tense. The article ends with an example abstract of a real-life study with a supplemental video related to the findings.
After finishing your research paper, thesis, or scientific paper, there is a need for you to write the abstract. How is the abstract written? What are the essential elements of a good abstract?
If this is your first time, or you don’t feel confident about writing your first abstract, these tips are handy. I provide an example to demonstrate how it works.
Table of Contents
Why Write the Abstract?
Abstracts are indispensable references for scientists or students working on their research proposal; particularly, in preparing their literature review.
The information provided in the abstract must be sufficient to help the researcher decide whether the work is relevant to his or her interest or not. It should be brief but not lacking in essential elements to foster understanding of the research conducted. The abstract will also help the researcher decide whether to read the whole research paper or not.
Definition of an Abstract
An abstract is a summary of your research paper, thesis, or scientific paper. The abstract describes an unpublished or published research study in capsule form. It is a brief overview of the investigation so that researchers can comprehend the content of the research quickly. A good abstract is a mini-version of the whole research paper.
Four Essential Elements of a Good Abstract
So how should the abstract of a research paper be written so that readers will derive the maximum benefit from it?
In writing a good abstract, the critical sections of a research paper should be present. Generally, an informational abstract should sum up the main sections of the research paper, i.e., the introduction, the materials and methods used, the findings, discussion, conclusions, and recommendations. Therefore, it should contain the following essential elements:
1. Objective, aim, or purpose of the research paper
This part of the abstract mentions the study’s rationale. It states clearly the objective, aim, or purpose of the study. It answers the question: “Why do we care about the issue?”
It states the problem statement or the central argument or thesis statement. The relevance of the study in society is highlighted. Why did the researchers undertake the research? What is at stake?
2. Method or methodology that states the procedures used in the conduct of the study
The method or methodology part concisely describes the method or methodology employed in gathering the data, processing, and analysis. It gives a brief description of how the researcher or group of researchers performed the investigation. It includes the number of samples, instruments, and statistical tests used to analyze the data for quantitative researches. This part also gives a hint on the scope of the study.
This portion of the abstract tells us the perspective adopted by the researcher or researchers. It describes the types of evidence used.
The method or methodology part also mentions the key concepts, relevant keywords that make it distinct and searchable. It also describes the focus of the investigation, whether it is a group of people, a particular gender, race, community, environment, etc.
3. Results or major findings
This portion of the abstract summarizes the results or major findings of the study. It only states the significant results, most important ones, or highlights of the study in a sentence or a few sentences.
You can cite the probability values here to show the significance of computed correlations or differences. It emphasizes the practical importance of the findings; how those findings will add or enhance the body of knowledge on the issue.
4. Principal conclusion
This part of the research abstract states the principal conclusion of the study. After obtaining the findings, what did the researchers conclude?
The conclusion, in particular, should be given special attention in writing the abstract. The conclusion should be well supported by the findings of the investigation; not a sweeping statement without any valid argument or evidence to back it up.
Other considerations in writing the research abstract
Do you need to include recommendations in the research abstract?
In practice, some academic institutions or scientific journals do not incorporate recommendations in the abstract. Browsing through some published scientific papers, I discovered that some abstracts end with only significant findings. While it would be good practice to have information as mentioned here, some deviations do exist.
As an academician, reading research abstracts that tell very little of the salient findings of the paper, particularly those behind a paywall, causes frustration. I tend to think those abstracts work more as a marketing strategy rather than to disseminate important information.
For publicly-funded researches, where most researches almost always belong, withholding information for commercial gain, appears to be unethical or defeats the purpose of research. In the US, taxpayers spend $140 billion every year supporting research that they cannot access for free. That is why open-access publishing has gained popularity in recent years. However, authors still contend with the high costs of publication in open-access journals.
In truth, we can’t afford to be free riders as reliable and rigorous scientific publication requires time, money, and effort to produce. A candidate paper for publication requires intensive peer review, editing, and formatting to make it worthy of publication in reputable journals. But perhaps publishing companies also need to be reasonable in their charges as many reviewers give their services for free.
Finally, the references (e.g. name of author and date) should not be cited in the abstract unless the research paper involves an improvement or modification of a previously published method used by a researcher.
Number of Words
Many references on how to write a good abstract recommend that it should be short. But how short should the research abstract be?
If you submit a paper for inclusion in a conference presentation, organizers usually limit its length from 250 to 300 words. It is possible, however, to capture the essence of the paper in a few sentences.
Hence, the challenge is how to make the research abstract as short as possible, without leaving out the essential elements, that will cause readers to read the paper. The abstract serves as a teaser, a taste of the pie for readers to decide whether they will read the whole piece.
Abstracts should not exceed 250 words, but this number could vary depending on the prescribed number of words, say when you would like to submit your research paper to a popular scientific journal. A good abstract adheres to brevity.
The limited number of words required for the research abstract means that every word included in the abstract is necessary and should be coherent. Important information should fit into one paragraph. This format requires a little bit of thinking and practice for the beginning researcher.
Tense of the Abstract
In what tense should the abstract be written?
The abstract is usually written in the past tense because the investigation has transpired. However, statement of facts in, say, the results and discussion and the conclusion, must be in the present tense.
In recent years, however, many authors write in the active tense. They use the first-person perspective in writing the paper. You can see the following phrases in the abstract:
- We analyze five years of sample visitor data…
- We compare non-linear, Poisson, and negative binomial count data…
- In this study, I challenge these interpretations…
Ultimately, the journal of publication defines the manner of abstract writing. But if you want the reader to grasp what you want to convey, bringing all the elements together would be more useful to the reader.
Example of an Abstract
I provide an example of a good abstract abiding with the precepts advanced in this article. It is for you to judge if this meets your expectations.
Young children’s exposure to violent computer games
This report discusses a two-year study on the effect of exposing four to six-year-old children to violent computer games. The study involved 200 children in nursery schools whose aggressive tendencies and anti-social behavior were observed with their teachers’ cooperation. The computer games they played at home were likewise assessed with the help of their parents. A strong correlation between violent computer game use and aggressive tendencies was obtained. Violent computer games, especially interactive ones, caused greater aggressiveness and anti-social behavior among children.
Although concisely written, the abstract captures the essence of the study. You can easily understand what transpired in that study, determine its relevance to your particular research, and decide whether to read the whole paper or merely cite the findings to strengthen your argument. But it always pays to read at least the method or methodology section of the full paper. While the study’s results are highly socially relevant, you might want to critique the paper by meticulously examining how the data was gathered and analyzed.
The example of an abstract given here is a real-life situation, as Dr. Perry Wilson reports in the following video.
Notice in the video that the study has its limitations. The participants, while young (8 to 12 years old), were conscious that they were observed in a university laboratory. This set-up may have affected their behavior.
Again, delving into the methodology of the study pays off. You cannot just blindly accept any scientific finding. It is always subject to error.
Have your style by deviating a little from the convention. The point is, the abstract should be interesting enough such that readers will want to read your investigation, learn from it, or skip it because it’s not directly relevant to their interest.
Since you want others to discover your work, select keywords or phrases that capture the essence of your research. Popular search engines like Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, or Safari need these keywords to effectively serve those who look for information on the issue that you cared to spend your time, money, and effort.
©P. A. Regoniel 9 November 2021