How to Write an Effective Abstract for a Journal ArticleFeb 04, 2023
Abstracts are short summaries of articles that help readers decide whether or not to read the full text. They're also crucial for search engines to find literature quickly, and many academic databases include abstracts as part of their search results. Editors, reviewers, and readers make quick judgements about the value of the paper based on the abstracts. Bad abstracts are vague, they don't state the main argument and significance, and/or focus too much on the background information rather than the current study. Thus, they don't effectively serve their purpose. Here's a guide on how to write a good-quality, effective abstract.
Abstracts are important because they help readers decide whether to read the full article.
Most people who come across your article are not going to read it. Ouch - I know. You spent so much time on the amazing research project and it's presentation. But, it's the truth. And it's actually okay.
What's most important is that others interested in your field of research read your paper and can see it's value. That's why the abstract needs to be written with the utmost clarity and brevity so that anyone who reads it can understand what you've done and what you've found out.
The role of your abstract is to communicate to the right people that it is worth their time to read your article in full, and hopefully, eventually, cite it. With the abstract you are showing exactly how your paper is providing value to the academic community.
While the abstract is always the first section of the journal article, it is most often the last section to be written.
The purpose of an abstract is summarise what you did and what you found out. It explains the value of your research to others in your field and beyond.
Abstracts should be a single paragraph of about 100-250 words.
Every journal has a different word limit for the abstract, but they tend to be between 100 and 250 words. Typically, they are presented as a single paragraph, with no subheadings or references (though there are rare exceptions to this).
Ninety-nine percent of the time you do not include references in your abstract. The rare exception to this is when you paper's purpose is to directly respond to another specific study. Some journals have a manuscript type called "Comments", and many of these kinds of articles include a citation in their abstract so that readers know exactly what study they are referring to. In this case, it is appropriate to include a reference in your abstract.
But, how you do this may differ from the main part of the manuscript because the abstract needs to stand on its own, separate from the references section of the manuscript. Generally, the citation will include the Name, Date, Journal, Volume #, Pg #s). For example,
"Previous work led to the suggestion that XXX (Johnson, 2019, Journal of XX 45:31-38). However, the study failed to XXX."
However, different journals may have different requirements for this, and you may not be able to find out until the final production phases of publication.
Abstracts should have a clear structure that follows the IMRAD format.
An abstract should have a clear structure with roughly five to ten sentences that follow the IMRAD format. (IMRAD stands for Introduction, Methods, Results, and Discussion). The first 1-3 sentences of your abstract should present the topic and any key pieces of background information that a reader needs to understand your study. This should be followed by a sentence that explains the problem your study addresses. Then, a brief statement about the method(s) you applied. The next section states clearly what your result is. You conclude the abstract with a statement about significance that ties back to the first few sentences.
As part of their style guide, Nature provides a detailed description and example of an abstract (what they call their 'summary paragraph'). This annotated example is super helpful and has become the gold standard for abstract format across many fields.
Note: The content Nature requires does not include a statement about methods, but for most journals it is appropriate to include a brief description of the methods in your abstract.
The journal Nature's annotated example of their required 'summary paragraph' shows exactly how an abstract should be formatted. It is an excellent resource for structuring your own abstracts.
Some journals may specify the kind of content that they want included in the abstract that differs slightly from above. Thus, you should always consult the journal's style guide and follow the instructions there.
Make sure that you include a problem statement.
It’s important to state clearly the problem you have addressed with your paper. The problem statement should be clear and concise, and it should be phrased in a way that someone who is not familiar with your field will understand what you are trying to do.
Examples of problem statements are:
A debated question is...
There is little agreement on...
Previous studies have not investigated....
The role of X remains largely unexamined....
Previous studies of X have not dealt with....
The research to date has focused on X rather than Y...
Make sure that your main argument is crystal clear.
I can't stress enough how important it is to clearly state your main argument. Good journal articles make an important point. They present a take home message that is useful to other researchers in the field. It offers a perspective that is unique and valuable.
Thus, a journal article needs one main argument and this should be stated in the abstract. It can be tempting to want to list everything you have learned about a research topic. But, when you do that the end result is a paper that is too long, disjointed, and without purpose.
Examples of phrases used to communicate a main argument are:
The findings indicate that …
Here, I show that...
These experiments confirmed that …
Overall, this review strengthens the idea that …
The current review highlights the importance of…
The method presented provides a useful tool for...
The most important part of an abstract is the main argument of the research paper.
The purpose of an abstract is to present your research in a concise, clear, and logical manner that allows readers to quickly assess its relevance for themselves. Each journal has its own word limit, so consult the journal's style guide to find out. Generally, abstract length is between 100-250 words. The structure of your abstract should follow the IMRAD format, it should contain a clear problem statement, and the main argument should be stated concisely. By following these guidelines, you can write a high-quality abstract that effectively communicates the value of your research to the academic community.
Want to learn how to leverage the work you have already done into high-quality, publishable journal, without feeling like an imposter? Check out my free publishing guide.
And to learn more about how to perfectly format your journal article, read this article.