The process of writing an abstract that is concise and relevant constitutes one of the main hurdles that PhD students face when they are first starting to write their publications. In this post, we will give a brief definition of a scientific abstract, what to include, and some general tips on how to write your scientific abstract.
The abstract is usually structured around these four or five sections: Background or Aim, Research Question(s), Methods/Procedures, Results, and Conclusions. The abstract should be viewed as a microcosm of your entire study which serves to kindle enough interest in the reader to make them read the entire publication. Remember that it should not be too complicated for the average reader to understand. He or she may not be in the same academic field as you. Let us start with the questions that you need to answer that builds the foundation of a well written abstract.
- What issue did you study and why is it important and unique? Here, you want to deliver some background to the study, the incentive behind the study, and the specific question or hypothesis you addressed. You may be able to answer this with only a few sentences but it could also require a longer description. Use your judgement on how much information you want to put in the first section.
- What methods/procedures did you use to study the problem? Answering this question, you want to give an overview of your different methods. Did you conduct a qualitative study or a quantitative study? How large was the sample size? What experimental treatments were applied? Generally speaking, you want to keep this section brief and not overly complex.
- What were your main findings? When describing your results, try to focus on the main findings and do not list more than three points. If your process of collecting data is still ongoing and your results have yet to be analyzed, that would probably mean that you are not yet ready for a full publication. I should however mention that it is possible to publish a working paper, or a conference paper, based on preliminary results.
- What is your conclusion based on these discoveries and what are the wider implications? The conclusion section is where you want to drive home the broader implications of your study. What is new or ground-breaking about your findings? How do your findings affect the field of study? Are there wider applications? In writing this section, avoid using unfinished thoughts to dwell deep into extensive generalizations which are not yet supported by the data.
To conclude; it is not particularly difficult to write a good scientific abstract and it does not require a very gifted mind to be able to produce a well-written abstract. It is however a skill that you can acquire and hone. By following the four guidelines mentioned above, you’ll get a solid foundation. I recommend students to find a scientific article in their field and let them read the abstract and divide the text into the four sections, that’s often a good practice that anyone can benefit from adopting. With time and repetition, you will be able to adjust and tune your abstract for maximal reach.