An academic abstract is a short but comprehensive summary of an article. It helps the reader to quickly understand what an article is about and also allows those searching for relevant information it may contain to find it easily. The abstract is important because it is usually what a reader of your article reads first and it is often the decisive factor concerning whether they continue to the rest of the article. There are different types of abstract, but this post will focus on general advice that can be applied to all.
The abstract should accurately reflect the content of the article. Whatever information is written in the abstract should be consistent with what is in the main text, and there should be no information in the abstract that is not in the main text.
The information in the abstract should be descriptive of the body of the article and not evaluative of it. It should in no way be a commentary on the merits of the article but rather should focus on describing its content.
If academic writing in general should be clear and concise, this goes doubly for the abstract. You have limited space and it should be used as efficiently as possible. More information on what you need and needn’t include is given below.
The precise format of an abstract may differ depending on academic style/journal/assessment guidelines etc. But, generally speaking, the abstract should be one or two paragraphs long and 150-300 words. The abstract should appear after the title and before the introduction of the article.
The abstract should closely follow the outline of your paper and contain the following sections.
Here’s an example of an abstract with the different sections colour-coded as above:
The goal of this paper is to examine the impact of linguistic coverage of databases used by bibliometricians on the capacity to effectively benchmark the work of researchers in social sciences and humanities. We examine the strong link between bibliometrics and the Thomson Scientific’s database and review the differences in the production and diffusion of knowledge in the social sciences and humanities (SSH) and the natural sciences and engineering (NSE). This leads to a re-examination of the debate on the coverage of these databases, more specifically in the SSH.. The methods section explains how we have compared the coverage of Thomson Scientific databases in the NSE and SSH to the Ulrich extensive database of journals. Our results show that there is a 20 to 25% overrepresentation of English-language journals in Thomson Scientific’s databases compared to the list of journals presented in Ulrich. This paper concludes that because of this bias, Thomson Scientific databases cannot be used in isolation to benchmark the output of countries in the SSH.
The research focus outlines the purpose/objective of the paper and the importance of the research in context. In the example above, the objective of the paper is initially made clear, and this is followed by some context that helps us to understand why the issue being examined is of importance.
- Use the present or past simple tense
- Make the purpose of the research crystal clear from the beginning
- Make the background/context brief and to the point
- Be sure the reader understands why your work is relevant/important
This section may be quite brief and you don’t have to go into the specifics of the methods you employed. Simply give an indication of how you approached your examination of the research question. In the example above, the authors inform us that the research goal was tackled through a comparison of databases (but they don’t go into further detail).
- Use the past simple tense
- Avoid unnecessary detail
- Describe your methods but don’t evaluate them
The most important findings of your research, i.e. those that directly relate to the research objectives, can go here. In the example above, the researchers provide their most pertinent statistic. It’s likely there are more in the paper, but this is the one the reader most needs to know.
- Use the present or past simple tense
- Include the most relevant result whether it be a single statistic or a summary of your data
How did your research match up to its stated goal? What can you infer from this? What matters here is that you make the significance of the outcome of your work clear to the reader. In the example above, the author uses the statistic given in the results section to provide a very clear conclusion regarding the subject of the research.
- The reader must understand what the research did or didn’t achieve in relation to the original purpose
- If there was a significant limitation, explain it
- If there is an important recommendation, make it.
To sum up, make sure to adhere to the following guidelines when writing an academic abstract
- Ensure it is the right length and format
- Follow the correct structure
- Write clearly and concisely
- Describe your work. Don’t evaluate it.
About the Author
Hi, I’m Paul Buckle and I run Eiredit.com and Editrue.com. I’ve been an editor and academic English teacher for over a decade and I have taught academic English at, among other places, Durham and Nottingham universities in the UK. These days, I spend a lot of time blogging on academic English and other writing and editing topics, and I very much hope these articles are useful to you. If they are, please bookmark, share, and leave a comment below. Cheers.