Abstracts

Abstracts often form part of larger pieces of writing, such as reports, journal articles or conference papers, though they may also be stand-alone pieces of writing. This page considers what an abstract is, types of abstract, how to structure one, and language for writing an abstract.


What is an abstract?

An abstract is a shortened version of an academic paper, such as a report, a conference paper or a journal article, appearing before the paper itself. It is intended for someone who has not read the article, and its purpose is to provide concise information to the reader so that they can decide whether to read the article in detail. It is therefore the most frequently read part of any paper, apart from the title. Abstracts for journal papers are often reprinted in special abstracting journals or electronic indexing services.


An abstract is similar to, though not the same as, an executive summary. While both present a summary of the whole document, they differ in terms of audience, purpose and length. An abstract is intended for an expert audience, while an executive summary presents an overview of the document to a non-expert audience, such as management personnel. In contract to an abstract, which is written so that the reader can decide whether or not to read the whole document, an executive summary is intended to provide enough information so the reader does not have to read the whole document. For this reason, an executive summary is usually longer than an abstract, typically 10-20% of the original, which compares to 5-10% for an abstract.


Types of abstract

There are two kinds of abstract which can be written.

  • Informative abstract. This type of abstract summarises the information in the main sections of the paper. It is the most common type of abstract, and is suitable for papers or reports about original research.
  • Descriptive abstract. This type of abstract describes the structure of the document. This type is far less common, although it might be appropriate for review articles or research the results of which you do not want to reveal to the reader until they have read the whole paper.

Structure of abstracts

An abstract is generally written as a single paragraph, though it is increasingly common for journals to request abstracts using headings. The contents of the abstract will depend on how the paper is structured. For a typical IMRAD structure (Introduction, Method, Results and Discussion), an abstract will normally include the following elements.

  • Background (the background to the research)
  • Aim (the aim of the research)
  • Method (how the research was conducted)
  • Results (what the main findings were)
  • Conclusions (what the findings mean)

The description of the methods is likely to be very brief (unless the paper is presenting a new method), while the results are likely to take up the greatest number of words. The description should be as quantitative as possible, in other words using numerical data. The abstract may also contain recommendations (e.g. for further research) and limitations (what the limitations of the research were).


The following would not normally be included in an abstract: information not contained in the paper itself; tables and diagrams; citations.


Language for abstracts

It is advisable to use short, simple sentences and active statements in order to convey the information as effectively as possible. Non-standard abbreviations should be avoided for clarity; most journals will be able to provide a list of standard abbreviations. It is common in abstracts to refer to the researchers using the third person plural pronoun ‘we’ or possessive pronoun ‘our’, as in the following examples.

  • In this review, we discuss...
  • Our findings/results suggest/that...
  • We show that...
  • We also found...
  • We provide recommendations...

There are some differences in language depending on the type of abstract. If you are writing an informative abstract, it is likely that past tense will be used most often to describe what you did or found out in your research. The language will be fairly precise and specific.


On the other hand, if you are writing a descriptive abstract, the present tense is more common as you describe what your paper does. The language may include more generalised vocabulary and phrases, such as the following.


  • The paper/This paper describes/explores/considers [X].
  • [X] is analysed.

Example abstracts

Example abstracts, as well as exercises for abstracts, can be found in the book Academic Writing Genres: Essays, Reports & Other Genres, part of the EAP Foundation series of books. You can use the form below to download a sample of the book.


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Checklist

Below is a checklist for abstracts. Use it to check your own writing, or get a peer (another student) to help you.


Area Item OK? Comment
General Appropriate type of abstract is used (informative or descriptive).
The abstract gives the reader a clear idea of what the research is about.
Structure The abstract is written as a single paragraph (using headings if required).
Content All relevant parts have been included, e.g. background, aim, method, results, conclusions.
The information on the method is very brief (unless a new method is presented).
The results take up the largest amount.
The results are stated in a quantitative way (i.e. using numerical data).
All important information is included.
All information in the abstract is contained in the paper.
Language Appropriate language is used (e.g. precise and specific for informative abstract, general for descriptive abstract).
Appropriate tense is used (usually past tense for informative abstract, present tense for descriptive abstract).
Non-standard abbreviations are avoided.
Other The abstract is within the word limit (if this is specified), or is 5-10% of the original.
Tables and diagrams are not used.
Citations are not used.



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Author: Sheldon Smith. Last modified: 01 September 2019.