How to Write an Abstract for a Research Paper
8 minute read
Imagine standing on the threshold of a vast library filled with books, each representing a unique realm of knowledge. Now, picture the abstract as a signpost at the entrance of each bookshelf, offering you a sneak peek into the exciting stories and ideas within those books. It's like having a magical map that guides you to the most intriguing parts of the library without reading every book from cover to cover.
The abstract isn't just a fancy summary; it's your golden ticket to presenting your research to the world. In this guide tailored specifically for high schoolers like you, we will dive into the art of crafting an abstract that not only explains your research but also captures readers' attention. From understanding its purpose to mastering the skill of clear and concise writing, we'll take you step by step through the process of creating an abstract that shines.
At its core, an abstract is a standalone piece of writing that encapsulates the essence of your research paper. It provides a window into your study, offering a snapshot of the problem, methodology, findings, and conclusions. Consider it a distilled version of your paper, designed to communicate the critical aspects of your research without requiring readers to navigate through the entire document.
When people talk about abstracts you’ll notice they use words like research, analysis, and findings. This all sounds very scientific, so you might assume that only STEM papers have abstracts. Do you really need an abstract if your paper isn’t scientific? The answer is yes. In academic contexts, learning to write a strong abstract is a good skill to develop because most college research papers will require one regardless of the discipline. Acquiring this knowledge in high school can help set you up for your future academic endeavors.
The abstract composition can vary across academic disciplines due to differing conventions and expectations. Here are some disciplinary considerations:
Scientific Disciplines: In scientific research, abstracts often entail a concise description of the research question, experimental design, methodology, results, and implications. This allows fellow researchers to swiftly assess the study's relevance and significance.
Humanities and Social Disciplines: Abstracts in these disciplines typically integrate the research question, theoretical framework, methodology, key findings, and broader implications for the field or society. The abstract may also reflect the author's theoretical stance or perspective.
Engineering and Technology: Engineering abstracts focus on problem statements, design objectives, methodologies, technological innovations, and their practical applications. They often highlight the efficiency or novelty of the proposed solutions.
Medical and Health Sciences: Abstracts in medical research elucidate the study's research question, methodology, patient population (if applicable), results, and clinical or public health implications.
The abstract can operate like a pitch. In a world full of headlines, videos, and links, people want to know if what they’re reading will be worth their time—and that’s where your abstract comes in handy.
An abstract serves as a concise gateway to your research, offering readers a glimpse into the heart of your study before delving into the full paper. While its structure may appear formulaic, each component plays a crucial role in effectively conveying your research's essence. In this section, we'll explore the key elements that constitute a well-crafted abstract, from its structure and length to the importance of clarity, active voice, keywords, and timing.
Let’s use Jasmita’s project abstract as an example as we’re going through the following elements:
Previous studies have shown us the effects that background music has while learning new material. Background music can help one while studying as it can improve mood and overall performance when doing work, but it can also be distracting. Although studies have looked at the effects of music genre on studying, no studies have examined how participants’ familiarity with background music affects their performance. In this study, we looked into the effects of listening to familiar and unfamiliar music on performance on a grammar task and on participants’ self-reported distractedness. We also examined how this effect is moderated by one’s overall test anxiety. Participants completed ACT reading comprehension questions while listening to playlists of familiar and unfamiliar music. These findings suggest that the familiarity of music and level of test anxiety do not have a significant effect on the overall performance while performing grammatical tasks.
While an abstract's structure may seem formulaic, each component plays a crucial role in conveying your research's essence:
Background and Purpose: Begin by establishing the context of your research. Introduce the problem or research question you sought to address. Explain its significance in your field and why it warrants investigation. Concisely state the purpose of your study.
Previous studies have shown us the effects that background music has while learning new material. Background music can help one while studying as it can improve mood and overall performance when doing work, but it can also be distracting. Although studies have looked at the effects of music genre on studying, no studies have examined how participants’ familiarity with background music affects their performance.
Methods: Describe the research methodology and approach you employed. Highlight any innovative techniques or methods you adopted. This section provides insight into the strategies you used to gather and analyze data.
In this study, we looked into the effects of listening to familiar and unfamiliar music on performance on a grammar task and on participants’ self-reported distractedness. We also examined how this effect is moderated by one’s overall test anxiety. Participants completed ACT reading comprehension questions while listening to playlists of familiar and unfamiliar music.
Results: Present the primary findings of your research. What were the fundamental discoveries, outcomes, or trends that emerged from your study? This section offers a glimpse into the heart of your research findings.
Conclusion: Summarize the conclusions and implications drawn from your findings. Reflect on how your research contributes to your field’s broader body of knowledge. Discuss the potential applications or significance of your results.
The length of an abstract can vary, but it typically ranges from 150 to 300 words. However, adhering to the specific word count guidelines provided by the target journal, conference, or publication platform is essential. Some institutions may require more extended abstracts, especially for more complex studies.
3. Audience-friendly language
Clarity and conciseness are paramount when crafting an abstract. Use straightforward language to convey your ideas. Avoid unnecessary jargon or technical terms that might confuse readers from different backgrounds including citations and abbreviations. The goal is to present your research in a way that is accessible and comprehensible to a broad audience.
4. Key elements
While your research paper may delve into various details and nuances, your abstract should focus on the most crucial elements. Identify the core components of your study—the problem, methodology, findings, and conclusions—and ensure that these elements are prominently featured in your abstract.
5. Active voice narration
Employing the active voice adds vibrancy and directness to your abstract. Instead of writing in passive voice (e.g., "It was found that..."), opt for active voice (e.g., "We found that..."). Active voice not only enhances readability but also imparts a sense of authority to your writing. This simple switch enhances engagement and readability.
6. Keyword usage
Keywords are pivotal to increasing the discoverability of your research. Incorporate relevant keywords that encapsulate the central themes of your study. These keywords play a crucial role in helping your paper surface in academic databases and search engine results.
It's generally advisable to write the abstract after you've completed the rest of your research paper. By doing so, you'll have a comprehensive understanding of your study's intricacies, enabling you to succinctly summarize its core aspects. This approach ensures that your abstract accurately reflects the contents of your paper.
8. Edits and revisions
The creation of a polished abstract necessitates meticulous editing and revision. Every sentence should contribute to the overall clarity and coherence of the abstract. Pay attention to sentence structure, grammar, and punctuation. Your abstract should be error-free and exhibit a seamless flow.
Crafting a compelling abstract is an art that requires finesse and precision. However, certain pitfalls can undermine the effectiveness of your research paper abstract. In this section, we'll explore five common abstract pitfalls that you should be vigilant about avoiding.
1. Excessive detail
The abstract's brevity precludes the inclusion of excessive detail. Avoid delving into intricate methodologies, extensive data, or nuanced analyses. Instead, focus on presenting a high-level overview.
Abstracts must be devoid of ambiguity. Ambiguous statements can lead to misinterpretation or confusion among readers. Ensure that every sentence conveys a clear and precise message.
3. Omission of key elements
Neglecting any of the fundamental elements— contextualization, research gap, methodology, key findings, and significance— can hinder the abstract's comprehensiveness and efficacy.
4. Unsatiated claims
Avoid making unsubstantiated claims or sweeping generalizations in the abstract. Statements should be grounded in the research's empirical evidence and data.
5. Unwarranted background
While context is crucial, avoid overwhelming the abstract with an extensive historical or theoretical background. Stick to the essential context required for understanding the research.
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A review paper requires a slightly different approach. In a review paper, you are presenting primarily known information. There are two main types of review papers: meta-analyses and literature reviews.
A meta-analysis compiles findings or, ideally, raw data, from multiple studies to provide new, consolidated results, and will therefore follow much of the pattern listed above. The most important thing in a meta-analysis is to discuss your strategy or tactic. You must describe where your information comes from, how you included or excluded studies, and what you did to the data, and this is so important that it also should be included in your abstract. Meta-analyses are considered the most robust form of information in medicine, and their vigorous nature depends on the analysis strategies.
A literature review covers a wide swath of literature and is a resource for someone who is new to the field, or someone who is looking for information about a topic that has been explained and contextualized. Therefore the abstract should focus on what information can be found, limitations in the work or field, and implications for the field as a whole. In a research paper, it is important to discuss which holes you are filling, while in a review, it can be equally important to state which holes exist to be filled. Another viewpoint is to consider what the information in your review could tell scientists, clinicians, politicians, or company policy-makers to guide them in their decision-making. Questions to consider:
What remains to be understood?
What should be put into practice based on this evidence?
What is most exciting in this field?
Visual or Graphical Abstracts
A new trend in research is the graphical abstract or visual abstract. Partly as recognition of the famed statistic that 65% of people are visual learners, and partly as scientific data becomes more niche and harder to explain within the word limit, making a graphical abstract can help your reader and you communicate. Graphical abstracts are ideal to convey a central hypothesis and then plot your findings against it. Typically, real data is not included, only smoothed generalized images. Another use for a graphical abstract is to add to a complex process, in which case an author may have a cartoon version of the process with the new information from their work highlighted.
An abstract is much more than a mere formality; it's a potent tool that encapsulates the essence of your research. By following a structured approach and placing emphasis on key components, you can construct an abstract that captivates readers and entices them to delve into your full paper. Remember, your abstract is often the initial introduction your research receives, making its creation a pivotal step in conveying the significance and impact of your study. Dedicate time and effort to crafting a compelling abstract, and watch as it beckons readers into the intricate world of your research.
Consider working with a Polygence research mentor for help developing your paper. A mentor can be a valuable resource throughout your research and writing process.
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Additional writers who contributed to this post:
Anh Nguyen, Brooke White, Maggie Chvillicek, Sage Lim Morison