How to Prepare the Abstract of a Scientific Paper

1. DEFINITION

An abstract should be viewed as a miniature version of the paper. The abstract should provide a brief summary of each of the main sections of the paper: introduction, materials and methods, results, and discussion. As Houghton (1975) put it, “An abstract can be defined as a summary of the information in a document.”

“A well-prepared abstract enables readers to identify the basic content of a document quickly and accurately, to determine its relevance to their inter­ests, and thus to decide whether they need to read the document in its entirety” (American National Standards Institute 1979b). The abstract should not exceed the length specified by the journal (commonly, 250 words), and it should be designed to define clearly what is dealt with in the paper. Typically, the abstract should be typed as a single paragraph, as in Figure 9.1. Some journals, how­ever, run “structured” abstracts consisting of a few brief paragraphs, each pre­ceded by a standardized subheading, as in Figure 9.2. Many people will read the abstract, either in the original journal or as retrieved by computer search.

The abstract should (1) state the principal objectives and scope of the inves­tigation, (2) describe the methods employed, (3) summarize the results, and (4) state the principal conclusions. The importance of the conclusions is indi­cated by the fact that they are often given three times: once in the abstract, again in the introduction, and again (in more detail, probably) in the discussion.

Most or all of the abstract should be written in the past tense because it refers to work done.

The abstract should never give any information or conclusion that is not stated in the paper. Literature must not be cited in the abstract (except in rare instances, such as modification of a previously published method). Likewise, normally the abstract should not include or refer to tables and figures. (Some journals, however, allow or even require the abstract to include a graphic.)

2. TYPES OF ABSTRACTS

The preceding rules apply to the abstracts that are used in primary journals and often without change in the secondary services (Chemical Abstracts, etc.). This type of abstract is often called an informative abstract, and it is designed to condense the paper. It can and should briefly state the problem, the method used to study the problem, and the principal data and conclusions. Often, the abstract supplants the need for reading the full paper; without such abstracts, scientists would not be able to keep up in active areas of research. (However, before citing a paper, you should read it in its entirety because some abstracts— surely not yours, though!—do not convey an entirely accurate picture of the research.) This is the type of abstract that precedes the body of the paper (thus serving as a “heading”) in most journals.

Another type of abstract is the indicative abstract (sometimes called a descriptive abstract). This type of abstract (see Figure 9.3) is designed to indicate the subjects dealt with in a paper, much like a table of contents, making it easy for potential readers to decide whether to read the paper. However, because of the descriptive rather than substantive nature, it can seldom serve as a substitute for the full paper. Thus, indicative abstracts should not be used as “heading” abstracts in research papers, but they may be used in other types of publica­tions, such as review papers, conference reports, and government reports. Such indicative abstracts are often of great value to reference librarians.

An effective discussion of the various uses and types of abstracts was provided by McGirr (1973, p. 4), whose conclusions are well worth repeating: “When writing the abstract, remember that it will be published by itself, and should be self-contained. That is, it should contain no bibliographic, figure, or table references. . . . The language should be familiar to the potential reader. Omit obscure abbreviations and acronyms. Write the paper before you write the abstract, if at all possible.”

Unless a long term is used several times within an abstract, do not abbrevi­ate the term. Wait and introduce the appropriate abbreviation at first use in the text (probably in the introduction).

3. ECONOMY OF WORDS

Occasionally, a scientist omits something important from the abstract. By far the most common fault, however, is the inclusion of extraneous detail.

A scientist once had some terribly involved theory about the relation of matter to energy. He then wrote a terribly involved paper. However, the scien­tist, knowing the limitations of editors, realized that the abstract of his paper would have to be short and simple if the paper was to be judged acceptable. So, he spent hours and hours honing his abstract. He eliminated word after word until, finally, all of the verbiage had been removed. What he was left with was the shortest abstract ever written: “E = mc2.”

Today, most scientific journals print an abstract before the main text of each paper. Because the abstract precedes the paper itself, and because the editors and reviewers like a bit of orientation, the abstract is almost always the first part of the manuscript read during the review process. Therefore, it is of fun­damental importance that the abstract be written clearly and simply. If you cannot make a good impression in your abstract, your cause may be lost. Very often, the reviewer may be perilously close to a final judgment of your manu­script after reading the abstract alone. This could be because the reviewer has a short attention span (often the case). However, if by definition the abstract is simply a very short version of the whole paper, it is only logical that the reviewer will often reach a preliminary conclusion, and that conclusion is likely to be the correct one. Usually, a good abstract is followed by a good paper; a poor abstract is a harbinger of woes to come.

Because an abstract is required by most journals and because a meeting abstract is a requirement for participation in a great many national and inter­national meetings (participation sometimes being determined on the basis of submitted abstracts), scientists should master the fundamentals of abstract preparation.

When writing the abstract, examine every word carefully. If you can tell your story in 100 words, do not use 200. Economically and scientifically, it doesn’t make sense to waste words. The total communication system can afford only so much verbal abuse. Of more importance to you, the use of clear, significant words will impress the editors and reviewers (not to mention readers), whereas the use of abstruse, verbose constructions might well contribute to a check in the “reject” box on the review form.

Here’s an example of an especially brief abstract, which accompanied a paper by M. V. Berry and colleagues (J. Phys. A: Math. Theor. 44:492001, 2011). The title of the paper: “Can apparent superluminal neutrino speeds be explained as a quantum weak measurement?” The abstract: “Probably not.” Should you write abstracts this short? Well, probably not. Normally an abstract should be more informative than this one. But at least, unlike some meandering abstracts, this one answers the question that the research addressed.

4. AKIN TO ABSTRACTS

Some journals include, in addition to abstracts, other components briefly con­veying key points to readers, skimmers, or browsers. For example, some journals ask authors to provide a bulleted list of key messages of their articles, either for posting only online or for publication as part of the article as well. Others, for instance, request a nontechnical summary or a brief statement of impli­cations. Some journals require such items to accompany all papers submitted; others request them only for some or all of the papers accepted for publication. Be aware that you may be asked to provide, in essence, an abstract of your abstract.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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