What is an Abstract?
When you have written a research paper, a thesis, or a dissertation, it is common practice to provide a summary of the work contained in the document. Research supervisors will often recommend that you wait until you have finished the document before writing the abstract to ensure that it accurately represents what the work contains. This is good advice, because the abstract isn’t written for you to remind yourself of what you have done. It is written for a specific purpose and for specific audiences.
The Purpose of an Abstract
Since academic research documents can run from 2000-word journal articles up to dissertations of tens of thousands of words, it is helpful to provide a brief summary of what the work contains, to avoid the frustration of reading the document in full only to realize that it doesn’t meet your needs as a fellow researcher. By reading the abstract at the beginning, assuming it is well written, you are given enough information to decide whether or not to invest time in reading the work in full.
The Audiences for an Abstract
Database searches, even targeted ones, can produce hundreds of results. Research students then face the ominous task of slogging through that list to identify articles and papers that are relevant to their specific research topic. Abstracts make that process more manageable by succinctly summarizing the paper so that the researcher can make a decision in minutes rather than hours.
Since abstracts are sorted and categorized into indexes to facilitate searching in larger academic databases, librarians are greatly appreciative of well-written abstracts. Correct use of search keywords is important here but of greater value is an accurate reflection of what your article or paper is about.
If you choose to submit your research to a local or national conference, your abstract will be requested as part of your application packet.
Key Components of an Effective Abstract
- It’s a concise description of your research: 150-200 words
- Since you’re describing completed work, it should be written in the past tense
- Since you’re describing the work you performed, it should be written in an active rather than passive voice
- Follow a formal structure to make sure that all relevant information is included:
- – Why the research topic is important and why you chose to investigate it (Problem Statement)
- – How you went about investigating it (Methodology)
- – What you learned (Results)
- – The implications of what you found (Conclusion)
- Assume no previous knowledge on the part of your reader – avoid acronyms and explain any topic specific terminology
- Leave any judgments as to the relevance of the research to your reader. This is a summary document, not a critique and should be written as such
- Stay within the confines of your document – don’t include any information that can’t be found in the research paper/article
- Use relevant keywords to facilitate correct classification in appropriate indexes
- Write the abstract as soon as you have finished your research, while the information is still fresh in your mind
Since your abstract will be the key to finding the complete work, take the extra time to double check it before submission. Better still, have someone who knows nothing about your research take a look at it – that way you can be sure you have hit the appropriate level of assuming no previous knowledge.