Making science (part XVI): The perfect abstract

It can be considerably frustrating to have to summarize many years of work in just 150 words, but that is what scientists often have to do at the time of writing the Abstract section of their research papers. However, a well written Abstract is crucially important, as it is the first thing (sometimes the only thing!) that readers will read, including the journal Editors that will decide about its publication. It can really be a make-it-or-break-it for the success of the article. However, many young and budding scientists often struggle with this section, usually because of an inability to distill the single most important and essential part of the discovery in a clear and simple way.

Not many sentences can fit into such a a strict word limit, so it is useful to have a clear idea upfront about the structure of the Abstract before laying down any concepts. Looking at a blank page waiting for ideas to materialize out of thin air is usually not a very efficient strategy. Here is a simplistic approach which has served well to me.

The first sentence is usually about what we already know. The second sentence is about what we don’t know. The third conveys the most significant finding of the study and how that addresses the knowledge gap mentioned in the second sentence. The fourth and fifth sentences typically expand on the third by describing the main observations in more detail and any innovative methodological approach used. The final sentence provides an impact statement with a more forward looking tone.

The Abstract is in essence a miniature scientific paper with an Introduction (sentences 1 and 2), Results (sentences 3 to 5) and Discussion (last sentence) sections. A well written Abstract should leave the reader with a clear idea of the advance being made, how that addressed something we did not known, and how it projects to the future, including any possible downstream application. Easier said than done. But this is one of those areas in life to which the old “practice makes perfect” aphorism actually applies . Good luck!

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