Writing the abstract

Here is a simple guideline for writing an abstract: Write one to two summary sentences for each of the following categories: introduction, objectives, methods, results, and conclusion. This guideline is effective for most journals. However, some journals have recently changed their requirements for abstract length and format, which means you may need to change your approach.

Abstract length

Maximum abstract length can vary from 75 to 400 words depending on the journal. For shorter abstracts, you may need to restrict yourself to a one sentence summary of each of the above categories. Another approach could be to focus on the objectives and the conclusions, and only include short statements on the methods and results of your research. You can also combine the objectives and methods in the same sentence; for example, ‘We determined the relationship between x and y by sampling …’.
For a longer abstract, you can include a more lengthy description of the methods section, and especially the results section. However, you can always write an abstract that is shorter than the maximum word limit. But it’s a good idea to check recent publications of the journal to see a typical abstract length. Whatever your abstract length, you should write as concisely as possible to maximize content.

Abstract format

Although the format of most abstracts is still one continuous paragraph, some journals have adopted more structured formats. The more structured formats might differ for different fields of research. One example from plant ecology is the Journal of Vegetation Science, which specifies sections (e.g., Question, Location, Methods, Results, Conclusions). Although you may need to add new content, such as location, usually most one-paragraph abstracts can be easily modified to fit a more structured format, especially if they are already written concisely using the five categories listed above. A structured format can also make it easier for you to write the abstract.
Other journals, such as the Journal of Ecology, require a list of numbered statements, a different type of structured format. The Journal of Ecology also requires a final statement labelled ‘Synthesis.’ As stated in their guidelines, the purpose of the synthesis statement is “to maximize the impact of your paper, by making it of as wide interest as possible.” While this section may be unique to this journal, it provides a good reminder that all final sentences should “explain the importance of your paper in a way that is accessible to non-specialists.”

Abstract value and purpose

Regardless of length or format, the abstract is the most important part of the manuscript because many editors, reviewers, and other researchers may read only your abstract to decide if reading the rest of your paper is worthwhile. Therefore, your abstract must provide clear, simple and concise statements that highlight the most important points of your paper.

©Karen Harper, PhD, and Oxford Editing, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Karen Harper, PhD, and Oxford Editing with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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