You are on page 1of 2

SSCI E-100A: PROSEMINAR IN RESEARCH METHODS AND SCHOLARLY WRITING

ELEMENTS OF

A SUCCESSFUL ABSTRACT

There are two fundamental types of abstracts: 1) one that accompanies a full length paper, and 2)
one that stands by itself, typically as part of a scientific meeting submission. Regardless of the
type, the guidelines are essentially the same. The former has the paper to fill in the gaps while
the latter really has to stand by itself.
Along with the title, the abstract is one of the more important components of a paper. While the
title is the last item of the paper to be written, the abstract is the second to last item you should
write. However, many students make the mistake of writing the abstract first and then trying to
fit the paper into this mold.
The abstract is often confused with the outline of the paper. The outline (which is written first)
should be used as a guide for writing the entire paper, but the completed paper should be used as
the outline for your abstract. Vague abstracts or ones that are clogged with statistical results or a
long list of effects with no discussion of what they mean are not very helpful to the reader and
are ineffective in communicating your ideas.
In essence, an abstract is a mini paper. It should be organized in a similar manner with the
following sections: Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion. The main difference is that
only the details that are most important for understanding the significance of the study should be
placed in the abstract. Essential items such as whether it is a treatment or basic science study
(this is often obvious from the methods description), or whether it is an epidemiological
assessment should be included. The methods can be 2-3 sentences that explain the major points
of the procedure, what was done to the subjects and how the data were analyzed, but precise
detail of the instruments used is not needed. The results section should be clear, concise and to
the point. Either you found something or you did not. The most important findings need to be
stated clearly, without any ambiguity. If there were many different findings, try to summarize
the major theme of the findings. Finally, the abstract should conclude with a statement about the
impact or implications of the findings and how they relate to the problem that was addressed.
Alternatively, the research results may instead suggest a new direction that the field should take.
The hypothesis does not need to be explicitly stated in the abstract, but it should be clear what it
is from the introduction. It should be stated in the body of the paper, often at the end of the
Introduction/Background section.
Some journals actually have you enter the headings Introduction, Methods, etc. in the body
of the abstract. Even if the journal does not require the headings, it is a good idea to write all of
your abstracts using these headers as guides and then remove them just before sending the
abstract to the editor.
Abstracts are encoded into electronic search engines and so, unless the abstract accurately
reflects the details and findings of the study, it will not be found when a person is conducting a
literature search. Here are some helpful guidelines for writing abstracts.
1.
Keep within the word guidelines--typically between 250 and 300 words. Many
electronic versions are truncated at this limit.
Page 1 of 2

SSCI E-100A: PROSEMINAR IN RESEARCH METHODS AND SCHOLARLY WRITING

2.
Begin with a general introduction sentence that sets the tone for why the study why the
study was conducted in the first place and so why it is important. A second sentence can identify
any gaps in the literature that are about to be filled by your paper.
3.
Include the subject population (or species in animal studies) and any special information
on the subject population (e.g., children with ADHD, morphine-dependent rats, tobaccowithdrawn women).
4.
Include the most important findings in the main body of the abstract. Tertiary findings
can be left to the paper.
5.

Maintain proper sentence structure throughout the abstract and do not write in fragments.

6. Provide your interpretation of the results in a succinct manner. Do not say things like: ..the
implications of these findings are discussed in the paper...
7.
Do not write long, run on sentences that try to include all details of the findings of the
study as well as an explanation of their meaning.
8.
Statistical results can be included in the abstract, but they must support the claims.
Above all, do not include a long list of the actual F or p values. It is better to say what happened
rather than repeating the actual data. It is sometimes acceptable to include the means and
standard deviations, but only when such values are critical to understanding the scope of the
project. For example, if you were reporting on the resting thyroid hormone levels of a specific
Native American tribe who eat large amounts of raw fish and comparing their values to the rest
of the population, it would be appropriate to include the actual values.
However, when looking at a manipulation that you have done in the experiment, consider the
following two sentences in the results section of an abstract:
Statistically significant elevations in reading comprehension were observed in the
students who received 6 weeks of tutoring compared to those who did not.
On average, children scored 26.45 3.56 on the reading comprehension component of
the Zoltarian Reading Comprehension Test. Children who received 6 weeks of tutoring scored an
average of 32.56 4.35 compared to a score of 27.12 3.47 for those who did not have a tutor
over the same time period. This difference was found to be statistically significant at the p< 0.05
level.
Which one would you rather read in an abstract? Which sentence says what happened more
clearly? Which one should you be reading in the Results Section of the paper?
9.
Avoid the urge to overstate the implications of your findings--stick to what was
measured. You can point out a weakness of the study (or a limitation), but do not dwell on
it/them in an abstract.

Page 2 of 2