A clear and concise abstract is one of the most essential parts of a scientific research paper, lab report, doctoral thesis, conference presentation or any other kind of serious scientific document. An abstract offers potential readers an informative and engaging preview of the research content, enabling them to find your work and quickly decide whether it is of interest for their research or publishing goals. The power of an excellent abstract to make the right first impression should never be underestimated; nor should the power of a poor abstract to make the wrong impression.
A scientific abstract can therefore be an extremely effective tool for both authors and readers, but abstracts can also be notoriously difficult to write. The abstract for a research paper or longer scientific document is normally between 100 and 400 words in length, with 250–300 words most common for scientific abstracts. Although something so short may seem easy to write, the length of the abstract presents one of the greatest challenges: packing the complexities of advanced scientific research into a few hundred well-chosen and perfectly arranged words is rarely easy. The most effective kind of abstract is carefully organised and formatted according to recognisable patterns; its content is accurate and relevant, its language uncomplicated and precise, and its written style formal and straightforward. These and other concerns when writing a scientific abstract are addressed in the following tips, which offer advice on what to avoid in an abstract as well as what to include.
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Half a Dozen Essential Tips for Writing an Effective Scientific Abstract
1. Know what sort of abstract you need to write before you begin. Scientific publishers, university instructors, conference organisers and funding agencies often have very specific requirements for the length, structure and content of abstracts. By finding the relevant guidelines and following them with precision and consistency, an author increases the chances of serious consideration by a publisher, a good grade from a professor or successful research support from a funding organisation. Ignoring guidelines, on the other hand, can mean compromising a document’s effectiveness. For example, a 250 word abstract might be requested in a publisher’s guidelines simply because no more than 250 words can be accommodated in that publisher’s catalogue or other important databases. If you provide a 400 word abstract instead, and manage to slip it past editorial staff, the most important information in your abstract – your results and conclusions – will likely be cut off and unavailable to potential readers, rendering your abstract far less effective and losing at least part of your audience. The solution is to know and observe the relevant guidelines every time you write a scientific abstract.
2. Design a clear and logical structure for your abstract. Primary among the requirements found in many guidelines for scientific abstracts are structural matters, and even if there are no guidelines to follow or specific requirements to meet, providing a clear and logical structure for a scientific abstract is always advisable. Ideally, the structure will reflect that of the document that follows, which should itself observe the relevant guidelines for structure. For a scientific research paper the abstract is therefore often divided into several short paragraphs with subheadings that match the headings for the main sections of the paper itself: ‘Background,’ ‘Objectives,’ ‘Study Design,’ ‘Methods & Materials,’ ‘Results,’ ‘Discussion’ and ‘Conclusions’ are common examples. The required formatting for the subheadings and paragraph breaks varies among guidelines, but inserting the headings into the beginning of the paragraphs (as the headings for the numbered tips are inserted here) can be an effective layout. Each of these brief paragraphs would then contain a sentence or two offering what you consider the most significant information for your readers to know about the corresponding section of your paper.
3. Provide relevant and accurate content in your abstract. A scientific abstract often serves as a kind of substitute for the research document itself – when potential readers are searching for recent studies, when editors are considering manuscripts for publication, when conference organisers are choosing presenters and when funding agencies are sharing information about their projects. All the major evidence and arguments presented in the main document should therefore be mentioned, including details about the most important results, the key interpretations of those results, the methods and limitations of the study, and the primary recommendations and conclusions. Everything you include in your abstract must be necessary, precise and informative, so beware of overburdening your readers (or potential readers) with excessive detail and defeating the purpose of the abstract. If there is simply too much vital information, careful selection will be required to meet length limits, so focussing on any helpful instructions offered in the guidelines and keeping the interests and needs of your anticipated readers in mind can be immensely helpful. In all cases, a scientific abstract should report, not evaluate or add to what can be found in the main document, and all data and other factual information presented in the abstract must agree precisely with the information reported in that main document, so reading back through your work is necessary as you refine your abstract.
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4. Write your scientific abstract in a formal and unadorned style. Occasionally, guidelines for scientific abstracts will request a less formal, point-form style, but abstracts for most publishers and instructors will require complete sentences and language equivalent to that in the research document itself. A style that observes grammatical and orthographical rules and employs effective punctuation will enable the clarity and accuracy necessary for the concise communication of research data and interpretive discussions. Include the keywords that will attract readers, but do not overuse them. The past tense is appropriate because the research has already been conducted and the textual report of it in the form of the paper or other document has already been written. Using the active voice (I investigated the problem…) can be helpful for achieving the concise style most scientific abstracts demand, but do check those guidelines as some scientific journals and instructors prefer the passive voice (The problem was investigated…) and a thoughtful combination of the two is often best. Whatever voice you use, every sentence should bear the maximum amount of information and meaning possible, the use of minor words should be minimised and each main word should be chosen with care. Although it may be tempting to borrow key sentences from the main document and repeat them in the abstract, a more professional and successful strategy is to use those key sentences to construct more condensed sentences for the abstract. Remember that not only the content of an abstract but also the writing itself can earn the interest and confidence of readers, or not, and one obviously wants the former to be true.
5. Avoid freighting your abstract with confusing information. Although some hardy readers will bluster on even when an abstract is unclear or riddled with errors, most will not. It is obviously essential to avoid errors of every kind – grammar, spelling, punctuation and typing – but certain normal aspects of scientific writing must usually be avoided in most abstracts as well. These include in-text citations of scholarly sources, which should be used only when absolutely necessary, and then the full bibliographical reference must be provided as well, using up a good number of words. In addition, any abbreviations that are not standard or that may not be known to the targeted readers should be avoided, and if an obscure abbreviation is needed, it must be defined on first use. Any specialised terminology or discipline-specific jargon will require definition or explanation as well, and should usually be avoided unless it is especially likely to attract the readers you hope to reach. Tables and figures do not normally appear in scientific abstracts either, and certain guidelines might have additional restrictions, so always check for what you should avoid as well as for what you should include in your abstract.
6. Read, revise and edit your abstract with the utmost care. No matter how attentive and precise you are as you initially write your scientific abstract, there is simply no substitute for reading, revising and editing your own work. Prose that is free of mistakes and crystal clear in meaning, shorter sentences that nonetheless communicate more information and an accomplished scientific writing style are the possible results of careful attention to your own writing. Asking a colleague, mentor or friend to read your abstract and offer you some input can open the door to a new perspective on your research as well as your writing and ultimately help you refine the prose of your abstract and clarify your meaning for future readers.
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