Professional Tips on How To Write an Abstract for a Research Paper
If you are writing an original research article for publication in an academic or scientific journal, you will almost certainly need to write an abstract to accompany the manuscript. An abstract is also required for other kinds of research papers such as theses, dissertations, class essays and lab reports. In all of these documents, the abstract appears front and centre, serving as an engaging and informative preview of the research paper and thereby enabling those who encounter the abstract to decide whether they should read the paper or not. Knowing how to write an abstract for a research paper is therefore an indispensible skill for academics and scientists who actively disseminate their research, as well as for their advanced students.

The first concern when pondering exactly how to write an abstract for a research paper is to determine what kind of abstract is required for the paper you are writing. Generally speaking, an abstract is a concise summary of a research paper, but many academic and scientific journals offer detailed instructions on the length, content, structure and formatting required for the abstract in a manuscript submission, and these guidelines vary among journals and for the different kinds of papers they publish. University professors also tend to have their preferences regarding abstracts for research papers and other documents submitted for credit. It is therefore imperative to discover the relevant instructions and study them very carefully before designing and drafting your abstract.

Most abstracts for research papers are between 100 and 300 words in length. ‘Descriptive’ abstracts of the kind used in many humanities papers might be no longer than 100 words describing the purpose and scope of the research, but not the results and conclusions. ‘Informative’ abstracts, on the other hand, are used extensively in the sciences and are far more common. They also tend to be longer – usually about 250 to 300 words. An informative abstract not only describes the research in the paper that follows, but also serves as a kind of substitute for the paper, so all the major evidence and arguments should be mentioned, including details about key results, limitations, interpretations and conclusions. In all cases there should be precise agreement between the information presented in the abstract and that presented in the research paper.

Shorter descriptive abstracts usually take the form of a single paragraph, but longer informative abstracts are often structured, by which I mean that they are divided into shorter paragraphs. Each paragraph is dedicated to a particular aspect of the research and its implications. These paragraphs are sometimes marked with subheadings that match the headings used for the main sections of the paper itself. ‘Objectives,’ ‘Background,’ ‘Study Design,’ ‘Methods & Materials,’ ‘Results,’ ‘Discussion,’ ‘Conclusions’ and similar headings are therefore common in the abstracts of scientific research papers, but it is always best to check the publisher guidelines or ask your instructor about preferences before moving ahead with your abstract. Only once you know exactly what kind of paper and abstract you should be writing can you know exactly how to write an abstract for a research paper that will meet the requirements.

The importance of writing well in complete sentences cannot be overemphasised. An abstract is often used by editors to decide whether a research paper submitted for publication should be sent on for peer review, and the abstract is frequently the part of a research paper that potential readers consult when deciding if they should read the entire document. Your writing must be clear and error free to communicate the nature and importance of your research and hold out the promise of further excellent prose in the paper itself. Writing the abstract will be easier after the rest of the paper has been drafted, and the past tense should be used to describe the completed research. It may not be possible to use the active voice in every sentence, but its use does contribute to the concise and straightforward writing style required in an academic or scientific abstract.

Some advice on how to write an abstract for a research paper recommends selecting key sentences about background, methods, results, limitations and conclusions from the various sections of the research paper and stringing them together via new transitional words to construct the abstract. There is no doubt that this is a relatively common practice and that some editors and instructors find it acceptable, but others do not, and I have seen publisher guidelines that specifically advise against repeating sentences in this way. Care should therefore be exercised when reusing any of your writing, and the safest policy is to create new sentences for your abstract. You can certainly make good use of those key sentences from your paper as you design and draft the abstract, but keep in mind that your statements and ideas will be best expressed if they are freshly tailored for the context.

Borrowed sentences are not the only contents to be avoided in an abstract for a research paper. Most publisher guidelines will request that abstracts be written for general readers as well as experts, so discipline-specific terminology and jargon should be eliminated unless the target journal is highly specialised and the terms are likely to be familiar to the kind of readers you expect. Nonstandard abbreviations should be defined if they must be included in the abstract, as should any unique names or labels associated with your research. Citations are not recommended and must be accompanied by full bibliographical references if they are unavoidable, and tables and figures should be neither included nor mentioned in the abstract. Individual publishers and instructors may recommend further restrictions, so the ‘do nots’ can become as important as the ‘dos’ when learning how to write an abstract for a research paper.