How to... write an abstract

What is an abstract?

A definition

An abstract is a succinct summary of a longer piece of work, usually academic in nature, which is published in isolation from the main text and should therefore stand on its own and be understandable without reference to the longer piece. It should report the latter's essential facts, and should not exaggerate or contain material that is not there.

Its purpose is to act as a reference tool (for example in a library abstracting service), enabling the reader to decide whether or not to read the full text.

Two common reasons for writing an abstract are

  1. to summarize a longer piece of work published as a journal article, thesis, book or web page, an existing article for the purposes of a journal,
  2. or to submit an application to write a paper for a conference.

In both cases, you will be given specific guidelines as to how to write the abstract including a maximum word count from either the relevant publisher or the organizer of the conference; those for Emerald are set out below. Conference papers are usually selected on the basis of abstracts: see tips below.


How to go about the writing process


  1. Start by writing a statement of the paper's purpose, which should be as succinct as possible. If you include background keep this to a minimum and only include such information as to provide a context.

  2. Summarize the paper, reporting its main facts. Remember the following points:

    • Follow the chronology of the paper and use its headings as guidelines.
    • Do not include unnecessary detail, as in the first example in "How not to write an abstract".
    • You are writing for an audience "in the know" – you can use the technical language of your discipline or profession, providing you communicate your meaning clearly, and bear in mind that you are writing to an international audience.
    • Make sure that what you write "flows" properly, that there are "connecting words" (e.g. consequently, moreover, for example, the benefits of this study, as a result, etc.) and/or the points you make are not disjointed but follow on from one another.
    • Use the active rather than the passive voice, e.g. "The study tested" rather than "It was tested in this study".
    • The style of writing should be dense, and sentences will probably be longer than usual.

  3. You should by now have a draft, which will probably be too long. Here are some points to remember in cutting:

    • cut out any unnecessary words that do not add to the meaning, but
    • make sure that the abstract is not so "cut" as to be unreadable; use full sentences, direct and indirect articles, connecting works, etc. An abstract should use continuous prose, not notes.

  4. Read through your draft, making sure that it covers the main points listed above, and that there are no grammatical, spelling or typographical errors, also that it "flows" properly.

  5. If possible, get a colleague to read through your abstract as a form of "peer review".

  6. Submit!

If you have difficulty with the general purpose statement or with summarizsing your article, it may be because the article's general concept is not that clear, or perhaps your research design or approach needs revisiting.


Instructions for writing a structured abstract for Emerald

Emerald has introduced a new format for article abstracts intended to help researchers by consistently providing the most useful information. Each abstract is made up of a number of set elements. An example is provided at the foot of this page.

1. Write the abstract

To produce a structured abstract for the journal and Emerald database, please complete the following fields about your paper. There are four fields which are obligatory (Purpose, Design/methodology/approach, Findings and Originality/value); the other three (Research limitations/implications, Practical implications, and Social implications) may be omitted if they are not applicable to your paper.

Abstracts should contain no more than 250 words. Write concisely and clearly. The abstract should reflect only what appears in the original paper.

What are the reason(s) for writing the paper or the aims of the research?


How are the objectives achieved? Include the main method(s) used for the research. What is the approach to the topic and what is the theoretical or subject scope of the paper?

What was found in the course of the work? This will refer to analysis, discussion, or results.

Research limitations/implications (if applicable)
If research is reported on in the paper this section must be completed and should include suggestions for future research and any identified limitations in the research process.

Practical implications (if applicable)
What outcomes and implications for practice, applications and consequences are identified? How will the research impact upon the business or enterprise? What changes to practice should be made as a result of this research? What is the commercial or economic impact? Not all papers will have practical implications.

Social implications (if applicable)
What will be the impact on society of this research? How will it influence public attitudes? How will it influence (corporate) social responsibility or environmental issues? How could it inform public or industry policy? How might it affect quality of life? Not all papers will have social implications.

What is new in the paper? State the value of the paper and to whom.

2. Using keywords

Using keywords is a vital part of abstract writing, because of the practice of retrieving information electronically: keywords act as the search term. Use keywords that are specific, and that reflect what is essential about the paper. Put yourself in the position of someone researching in your field: what would you look for? Consider also whether you can use any of the current "buzz words".

3. Choose a category for the paper

Pick the category which most closely describes your paper. We understand that some papers can fit into more than one category but it is necessary to assign your paper to one of the categories – these are listed and will be searchable within the database:

  • Research paper. This category covers papers which report on any type of research undertaken by the author(s). The research may involve the construction or testing of a model or framework, action research, testing of data, market research or surveys, empirical, scientific or clinical research.
  • Viewpoint. Any paper, where content is dependent on the author's opinion and interpretation, should be included in this category; this also includes journalistic pieces.
  • Technical paper. Describes and evaluates technical products, processes or services.
  • Conceptual paper. These papers will not be based on research but will develop hypotheses. The papers are likely to be discursive and will cover philosophical discussions and comparative studies of others' work and thinking.
  • Case study. Case studies describe actual interventions or experiences within organizations. They may well be subjective and will not generally report on research. A description of a legal case or a hypothetical case study used as a teaching exercise would also fit into this category.
  • Literature review. It is expected that all types of paper cite any relevant literature so this category should only be used if the main purpose of the paper is to annotate and/or critique the literature in a particular subject area. It may be a selective bibliography providing advice on information sources or it may be comprehensive in that the paper's aim is to cover the main contributors to the development of a topic and explore their different views.
  • General review. This category covers those papers which provide an overview or historical examination of some concept, technique or phenomenon. The papers are likely to be more descriptive or instructional ("how to" papers) than discursive.


Tips for writing abstracts for conference papers

The difficulty here is that you will probably be writing the abstract as a preamble to the actual paper, rather than subsequent to it. Here are some points to remember:

  1. Clarify in your own mind what is the purpose of the paper: what it is that you are going to do.

  2. Look carefully at the themes of the conference: note those that apply and frame your paper accordingly.

  3. Very often, the submission procedure will dictate the format and the number of words of the abstract. For example:

    • Title
    • Name of presenter, contact details
    • Category of presentation (e.g. workshop, research paper, short paper, poster etc.)
    • Conference themes addressed.
    • Key words that will help people deciding whether or not to participate to understand its focus.
    • Objectives/intended outcomes and activities for participants
    • The abstract.

  4. Stick closely to the length given. You will often have no choice in this matter, because if you submit electronically you will find yourself cut off in mid sentence as you reach the required limit.

  5. When writing the abstract, ask yourself the following questions:

    • What is the purpose of my paper? This should, as with any abstract, be a general definition statement about the objectives of your paper.
    • What approach am I using? I.e. am I reviewing the literature, describing a case study, supporting a research hypothesis, and if the latter, what is my research design and research methodology?
    • What are my findings?
    • What is the import of my findings?

  6. Choose your keywords carefully, making sure that they match the themes of the conference.


How to Abstract: Write an Abstract for your Research Paper

Your research paper or lab report is all done, and your professor (or teacher) has asked that all papers include an abstract. Here's how to write a college-level (or advanced high school level) abstract.

Difficulty: Moderately Easy


1.    Step 1

.Make sure you are clear on what type of abstract is expected for your paper.

An informative abstract summarizes the entire paper, including the key themes and purpose of the paper, major facts bearing on the conclusion, and a summary of key findings. This is the most common type of abstract.

A descriptive abstract, on the other hand, concentrates on identifying the purpose of the paper, and describing the major areas to be covered in the report. It would be appropriate, for instance, in a review paper reporting on a survey of literature in a particular field.

2.    Step 2

.Whatever type of abstract you are writing, remember that it is an important first impression. This is what the reader will see, and will help him or her decide whether to read the rest of the paper or article.

3.    Step 3

.As appropriate to your topic, include any or all of the following:
Why is this topic important -- what problem does it address.
What hypothesis is being examined.
What methods or approach are used to address the topic.
What are the key findings (particularly appropriate to a scientific paper).
What conclusions or discussions stem from the findings.

4.    Step 4

Keep the abstract short, but be sure to include all major points that you want to get across. A general rule of thumb is that the abstract is no longer than a page, and no longer than 10% the length of the full report...whichever is shorter.

5.    Step 5

Do not include tables, figures, or references in an abstract.

6.    Step 6

.Reread/rewrite. Edit your abstract for content, flow, and readability.

7.    Step 7

.Be sure to check with your professor or mentor to make sure there are no specific format or other requirements for your abstract (or report), beyond those mentioned here.


Bad examples


Article Abstract:

Customer satisfaction is after all the ultimate aim of every business. Measurement of that satisfaction should be appropriate in the assessment of organization's performance. Common worst practices adopted in customer satisfaction measurement and steps to avoid those pitfalls, are suggested.

author: Clark, Bruce H.
Measurement, Customer satisfaction


Behind the wheel

Article Abstract:

The benefits and process of using 'dashboard' concept as a marketing performance measurement tool are presented.

author: Clark, Bruce H., Abela, Andrew V.
Market Targeting & Approach, Methods, Market strategy, Business performance management


Resisting gravity

Article Abstract:

The process of managing and analyzing return on investment for marketing campaigns is discussed.

author: Duboff, Rob


Examples of good abstracts

History/social science:

"Their War": The Perspective of the South Vietnamese Military in Their Own Words

Author: Julie Pham (UCB participant in UC Day 2001)

Despite the vast research by Americans on the Vietnam War, little is known about the perspective of South Vietnamese military, officially called the Republic of Vietnam Armed Forces (RVNAF). The overall image that emerges from the literature is negative: lazy, corrupt, unpatriotic, apathetic soldiers with poor fighting spirits. This study recovers some of the South Vietnamese military perspective for an American audience through qualititative interviews with 40 RVNAF veterans now living in San José, Sacramento, and Seattle, home to three of the top five largest Vietnamese American communities in the nation. An analysis of these interviews yields the veterans' own explanations that complicate and sometimes even challenge three widely held assumptions about the South Vietnamese military: 1) the RVNAF was rife with corruption at the top ranks, hurting the morale of the lower ranks; 2) racial relations between the South Vietnamese military and the Americans were tense and hostile; and 3) the RVNAF was apathetic in defending South Vietnam from communism. The stories add nuance to our understanding of who the South Vietnamese were in the Vietnam War. This study is part of a growing body of research on non-American perspectives of the war. In using a largely untapped source of Vietnamese history &endash; oral histories with Vietnamese immigrants &endash; this project will contribute to future research on similar topics.


Violence, Subalternity, and El Corrido Along the US/Mexican Border

Author: Roberto Hernandez (UCB participant in UC Day 2001)

The Geopolitical divide that separates the United States and Mexico has long plagued the region with violence and conflict. However, its extent and political nature is often overshadowed and undermined by mainstream information outlets. The boundary inspires polarized reactions: tough on crime/immigration rhetoric from politicians and enforcement officials &endash; exemplified in current border militarization &endash; and appeasement through feel-good news reporting. Such contradictions desensitize and deny the essence and root cause of the conflict &endash; an ongoing sociopolitical, cultural, and economic struggle between the two nations. While information transmission in the north has a U.S. focus, south of the divide knowledge distribution is very Mexico-centered. However, the border region acts as a third space t hat gives birth to a distinct border gnosis, a unique form of knowledge construction among subaltern communities on both its sides. One form of subalternity, corridos, (border folk ballads), has functioned to create an alternative discourse to the borderlands imaginary. This study is an examination of the analysis and critique found in corridos that seek a critical approach to the violence at the nations' shared edges and its ensuing political implications. To illustrate their subaltern function, I will examine two incidents: the 1984 McDonalds shooting in San Ysidro, California, and the 1997 death of Ezequiel Hernández in Redford, Texas. these cases are indicative of the politically charged environment of a border region that in becoming an increasingly militarized zone has also set the stage for a cultural battle amongst different forms of knowledge construction and legitimation.

Biological Sciences:

"The Listeria monocytogenes p60 Protein is not Essential for Viability in vitro, but Promotes Virulence in vivo"

Author: Sina Mohammedi, 2002 UC Day nominee and runner-up

Intracellular pathogens (agents which infect host cells), such as Mycobacterium tuberculosis and Listeria monocytogenes, cause very high mortality rates in the United States. Therefore, deciphering the mechanisms through which the pathogens cause disease is of great interest. Listeria infection of mice is a well-developed model system for studying the fundamentals of host-pathogen interactions. In vitro assays in animal cell cultures have helped show that Listeria causes illness by secreting molecules, called virulence factors, to the outside of the bacterial cell in order to affect the host organism. My work involves one such secreted protein, called p60. P60 is an antigen (an agent seen by the host immune system) implicated in regulated bacterial cell wall breakdown. The objective of this study was to examine two questions: first, is p60 essential to the viability of Listeria, as previously published? and second, is p60 a virulence factor in Listeria? To examine these questions, I contructed a Listeria strain lacking p60 (p60-). This new strain displayed no defect in viability. In fact, most standard in vitro pathogenicity assays were normal for p60-. However, when p60- was tested in a mouse (in vivo), a 1000-fold reduction in virulence was observed. This discovery suggests that p60 is indeed a key factor in the disease-causing ability of Listeria, but not essential for viability. Future studies will focus on the precise role of p60 in Listeria pathogenesis. This work increases our understanding of such diseases as tuberculoses, various food poisonings, and meningitis.


"Quantifying the Mechanics of a Laryngoscopy"

Laryngoscopy is a medical procedure that provides a secure airway by passing a breathing tube through the mouth and into the lungs of a patient. The ability to successfully perform laryngoscopy is highly dependent on operator skill; experienced physicians have failure rates of 0.1% or less, while less experienced paramedics may have failure rates of 10-33%, which can lead to death or brain injury. Accordingly, there is a need for improved training methods, and virtual reality technology holds promise for this application. The immediate objective of this research project is to measure the mechanics of laryngoscopy, so that an advanced training mannequin can be developed. This summer an instrumented laryngoscope has been developed which uses a 6-axis force/torque sensor and a magnetic position/orientation sensor to quantify the interactions between the laryngoscope and the patient. Experienced physicians as well as residents in training have used this device on an existing mannequin, and the force and motion trajectories have been visualized in 3D. One objective is to use comparisons between expert and novice users to identify the critical skill components necessary for patients, to identify the mechanical properties of the human anatomy that effect laryngoscopy, and thus enable the development of a realistic training simulator. In the future an advanced training mannequin will be developed whose physical properties will be based on our sensor measurements, and where virtual reality tools will be used to provide training feedback for novice users.


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