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The abstract is the “soul” of the research or journal article. It is actually a summary of your paper and someone who reads it must have a good understanding of why your paper was written, its importance, and the conclusions you have reached. It could be the determining factor on whether the casual browser will actually read your paper or not. An abstract, therefore, should be able to entice the reader to continue and read your article as a whole.
I know many readers of scientific publications who just read abstracts; if they find these interesting, then they make a note of the journal article doi and file these to be read on another time or day. Thus, an abstract should use simple and understandable language, and must make its point short and clear. No compound complex words or sentences please!
Before even writing the abstract, the instructions to the authors must be read and followed to the letter. There are journals (like the Acta) who specify the maximum number of words to be used, and if the abstract should be structured or not. A good tip on word limits, is this: the author writes a first draft of the abstract that he perceives to be complete and even detailed; then, he starts to cut words or shortens sentences so that he can comply with the word limit set by the journal. As far as the structured format is concerned, this is practically now the norm for most journals and actually makes the abstract feel more organized and easy to comprehend.
Here are the common sections of an abstract, and a brief description of each: (1) Background – this should answer the question on why this article was written, what it is all about, and why it is of importance; (2) Objectives – the shorter, the better and I suggest using only a sentence for this section; the aims you set out should be clearly stated and what you hope to achieve; (3) Methods – the study design should be described in a very concise manner, albeit longer than the other sections; authors should be careful not to omit important information about the methodology in an attempt at brevity; (4) Results – here the findings are presented as well as real data but no figures nor tables please! (5) Conclusion - here, a short interpretation of the results are presented, the implications of such results, and limitations. The conclusion should attempt to answer the objectives.
An abstract naturally, is usually the last part of the journal that is written. It should not be too difficult to write, particularly if you understand your paper well. Actually, it should be fun to write!
Jose Ma. C. Avila, MD