Abstracts are an important part of scholarly publications. Journal editors select reviewers based on the abstract, conference organizers select presentations and invite full length papers based on an abstract (sometimes an extended abstract), and online databases crawl the abstract when indexing search results. In this post, I will give my two cents on journal abstracts.
First, abstracts are not an introduction. An abstract should be an autonomous statement of the work including the methods, results, and conclusions. Journal guidelines vary, but abstracts are typically 150-200 words.
There are many online resources for how to write abstracts. The best one I’ve seen breaks the journal abstract down into five components and recommends at least one sentence to answer each of these questions:
- Motivation – why should the reader care about the problem?
- Problem statement – what is the problem and its scope?
- Approach – how did you solve the problem?
- Results – what is the answer to the problem?
- Conclusions – what are the implications of the results?
Many abstracts lack Motivation and Conclusions, which can be a big turn off to readers. Also, I’ve seen authors take several sentences to describe the Approach and, as a result, the abstract starts to read like an introduction. Be brief. Remember “MPARC”.
After your manuscript is published and gets indexed for search results, the abstract embarks on its most important job–enticing people to read the paper. Although you might get a few citations from people who read only the abstract, most citations and all of the positive feedback will come from people who actually read the paper. If your abstract is poorly written or not convincing, few people will bother to read the paper.
Think of the abstract as a window display that lures shoppers into the store to buy something, i.e., to read your paper and cite it. Don’t be flashy and oversell. Keep it simple like in the image below, where you’ll also find some two force members!
Now for my pet peeve. Don’t lead the abstract off with “In this paper” or some other similarly worded protraction. It’s effortless, does not motivate, and sets a boring tone. Besides, to what other paper would the abstract refer? Remember, the abstract should be autonomous. Does the paper refer back to the abstract? No. The paper stands alone. So should the abstract.