Making abstracts less abstract

Abstracts are Mini-Me research papers

The abstract is the most important part of any research paper. Ok, yes, the data is also important. As is the experimental design. And the interpretation of results. And conclusions. But in terms of people reading, understanding and citing your research, it is the abstract that needs to be first rate. This is worth spending time on because, in reality, it will be the only part of the paper that most people ever read.

The abstract is meant to be a Mini-Me version of the entire paper. The story of the data should be presented there in all its 150 word glory, enticing readers to delve into the 10,000 word masterpiece that is the full paper. This is certainly not an easy thing to do and I do not at all claim to be a master of the art. Many of my papers, particularly back in the early days, have glossed of the abstract as an annoying and unnecessary add-on to the paper. It’s only now that I have read many hundreds of research papers that I see the value of the abstract.

Here are some points to consider for writing a clear and concise abstract.

What’s the problem?

We as readers need to know why we should care about the data. This is like your 15-second elevator pitch for the project. An opening sentence that states what you’re working on, why it’s important, and what problem this project tried to solve.

What strategy was used to tackle the problem?

The experimental design is critical to the project. Anything that happens downstream of that can be rendered irrelevant if there are not sufficient controls or sample replicates. This is also where peer-reviewers will be most critical and a great deal of details should be included in the paper. The paper, not the abstract. The abstract only needs a sentence naming the methods used and the samples analysed.

What happened?

Really make the findings and novelty of the work stand out. If the title of the paper was “Effect of something on something else”, include that effect in the results. Did it increase the concentration of something? Decrease it? Cause a side reaction? Readers probably don’t already know what effect was expected.

Draw a conclusion

This is the part that is infuriatingly-often excluded from abstracts and yet this is the key to making people understand your data. What do your results mean in the context of the original problem? A concluding statement goes a long way to generating citations. The conclusion also makes for a strong title. Consider something like “A causes B” rather than “the effect of A on B”. Much catchier and again helps readers understand your findings.

The best test of the abstract is to get someone outside the group to read it and tell you what it’s about. It’s amazing how something that makes so much sense when you’re so close to the data can make absolutely no sense to someone not too far removed. All this may seem so unnecessary when the great big paper is finally written, but it is certainly worth the effort.

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