How To Write an Abstract For a Research Paper
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What is an abstract for a research paper?
The abstract of a scientific paper is often the only part of it that readers will see, so you will need to use the space wisely. In this section of your manuscript, you will summarize your work and capture the reader’s attention in a story that tells why you did the work, how you did it, what you found, and what it means. Often, the space is limited because many journals require authors to write their abstract using 250 words or fewer.
How to start an abstract
The content of most abstracts for a research paper follows the same basic pattern. To begin, in just a couple of sentences, you give your readers the background they need to understand the rest of your work. You also will almost always include the specific aim of your study or its hypothesis or main question.
How to write an abstract for a research paper
Following this opening, in just a few sentences, your abstract next will describe the basic study design (e.g., retrospective, randomized, cross-sectional, etc.), number of patients or animals it involved, and tests or interventions you used. Sometimes, authors will include a brief mention of the statistical analyses they performed.
The last two parts of an abstract are the results and the conclusions. You should include the results that reflect the most important parts of your findings. You do not need to squeeze in every detail of these results, and it’s best to focus clearly on your most significant findings. Finally, you end your abstract with a conclusion. It’s usually not appropriate simply to say something like “more research is needed.” Instead, you should tell the reader the most important, specific takeaway from your work. If you have the word count left, you can offer a pointer to what the next steps should be, based on your findings. You should work to make your language clear and available even to a nonspecialist.
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How to format your abstract
The format of your abstract will depend on which journal you choose. Some journals want an abstract in a single paragraph with no headings. Even in an abstract without headings, you should follow the same basic order described above, with a couple of sentences of background and introduction, followed by a brief methods and design, results, and conclusion.
Some journals follow a similar pattern when they require abstracts with headings. This type of abstract is called a “structured abstract,” and when you see that phrase, you will need to break up your abstract into sections with the required headings. These usually will be Introduction (or Background or Objectives), Methods (or Materials and Methods or Study Design), Results, and Conclusions. Some journals use less standard headings, such as Objective, Design, Setting, Patients, Interventions, Results, Conclusions, and Limitations.
Considerations for individual journals
Every academic journal has instructions for authors hoping to submit a paper. Journals call these instructions by different names, including “Instructions for authors,” “Author information,” “Journal guidelines,” and “Submission information.” In these instructions, you will find what the journal expects in terms of word count, structured or non-structured abstract text, and sometimes quite detailed information about phrasing and content, depending on the journal.
Below, we give you three examples of abstracts. The first two are not good abstracts, one because it is too vague and the other because it contains too much detail. Please note that these abstracts are not real and that the studies they described are fictional.