What is an Abstract for a Research Paper?
An abstract is a brief summary of a research paper. Usually, an abstract is about 6-7 sentences long (approx. 150-250 words). There are many purposes that an abstract may serve. First and foremost, it gives readers a glimpse of your paper. This gives your readers an opportunity to make a decision whether or not your study is worth their full attention. Another purpose of an abstract is to prepare your audience for the details from your research, your arguments and your supporting evidence. And lastly, an abstract introduces the key points of your paper so that readers can keep them in mind while reading your research.
Very often, abstracts are found as descriptions for books and scholarly articles. They include the main ideas of a book or an article and give a general understanding of its contents and purpose. Sometimes, professors provide students with very specific guidelines for how to write an abstract. Make sure you follow these instructions, if they are available, in order to satisfy all the requirements.
Types of Abstract
There are two main types of abstracts that are commonly used – they are descriptive and informative:
A descriptive abstract presents readers with an outline of the points the author made throughout their research. This gives readers an opportunity to decide if they should read on, depending on how much they are interested in the subject. A descriptive abstract is similar to the table of contents in a book, although the format of an abstract uses full sentences combined within a paragraph. Unfortunately, a descriptive abstract cannot be a substitution for reading a paper, as it is merely an overview, which deprives the audience of having a full picture. Nor can it fill in the gaps that a reader might have after reading this type of abstract, as it lacks the important details needed for an evaluation of the paper. To conclude, a descriptive abstract:
- just summarizes the job, but some researchers consider it to be more of an outline;
- typically, is around 100 words—very short in comparison to an informative abstract;
- gives a very brief description and is unable to fully satisfy the reader;
- and omits results and conclusions.
An informative abstract is a detailed summary of the research itself. There are instances when readers rely on the abstract itself as a source of information. Therefore, it is extremely important to include all the specifics from a certain study. A well-presented, informative abstract can almost substitute the rest of the paper by itself.
An informative abstract usually follows a certain format. First, the author includes identifying information, supported by citations and other identifications of the documents. Next, all the main points are restated to ensure a better understanding of the research. This section is followed by the methodology and all the key findings of the study. Lastly, a conclusion presents the final findings of the research and concludes the informative abstract.
Briefly, an informative abstract:
- has a length that can vary, depending on the topic—but cannot be longer than 300 words;
- has all the information—like methods and intentions;
- provides evidence and potentially recommendations.
Informative abstracts are more common than descriptive ones. It is a result of their larger content that relates to the subject specifically. It is also suggested to use different types of abstracts for papers depending on their size: informative abstracts for longer and more complicated ones, and descriptive abstracts for shorter and simpler research papers.
The Structure of the Abstract: Step-By-Step Instructions
Purpose and Motivation
Identifying purpose and motivation is one of the most difficult, yet important parts of your abstract. Let’s assume that your paper is about the importance of recycling plastic. Your primary job is to explain to readers why they should care about the contamination of plastics on land and in the ocean. You need to provide some solid arguments to keep your reader interested in continuing to read. It is crucial to answer these questions:
- what is the goal of your study;
- what is it you are attempting to achieve;
- and why does your topic matter to you and to the rest of the world?
In order to make it sound more personal and motivational, make sure to include information about your individual interests in the subject of your paper, as well as how it relates to your life and humanity in general. In short, the first section should include the information on the importance of your research and how it might be useful for your readers.
The Problem of a Research
It usually focuses on the importance and significance of the subject of a paper. Going back to our topic regarding the importance of plastic recycling, the importance of the paper is to reduce plastic waste contamination by recycling your own plastic waste. Here, you need to answer the question – what problem does your study help to resolve on a global scale? Is it preventing global warming by reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in oceanic waters? Is it assessing global warming issues? Is it a solution for sea-life conservation? The possibilities are endless, so make sure to take the right direction to appeal to any audience, regardless of their background and interests. In this section, it is important to address the problem itself, indicate whether it covers something broad or specific, and present your argument.
After you have explained the reasons behind your topic’s importance, your personal interest in the issue, and the problem discussed in your paper to your readers, it is time to showcase the methods you used to conduct all that great research. The description of the processes and methods you have used are as important as the research itself. It shows the readers the extent of your research and the professional approach you took regarding your subject. Describe where you looked for the information, what kind of sources they were, what type of research you did yourself. Did you do an experiment, a survey, an interview, a field study where you explored your local beach for traces of plastic pollution? A detailed description of the approach to your research is a great tool for showing your reader how academically capable you are of conducting serious scientific research. Your section that examines the approach you took for your research should include the details of your research, such as the specific studies and highlights from the most significant works you used.
Finally, you get to present readers the results of your research. It is very important to be specific with your results. Using statistical evidence is much more impressive, as opposed to being vague and using abstract words. Instead of saying “a big portion of the ocean is polluted”, you can say something like “80% of the oceans are polluted with plastic”. This helps readers visualize the specific proportion of ocean which is contaminated and adds to the effect it makes on the audience. Some questions that should be answered in this section are: what are the results of your study in numbers and terms (be specific), did your results support your argument, and were the outcomes predicted or did they surprise you?
In the conclusion part of your abstract, you should focus on the argument you started off with and connect it to the results you received. It is crucial to give the reader a complete picture of what insights you’ve discovered in regards to the subject, but also whether you have found the solution for the problem you addressed. Explain, whether your research is sufficient to convince people to be more responsible in regards to their plastic consumption? Will it alter their behavior and their everyday habits? Your conclusion should tie it all together and not leave any uncertainties. After you’ve got all the structural details down, let’s move on to some helpful tips.
Final Tips and Recommendations
Research always comes first. It might seem that the abstract should be the first thing you write, as it is the summary of your whole paper, though, there are many advantages to choosing this sequence of actions when starting to work on your paper:
- First, you can read through the entire article and have all the information fresh in your mind. Then you will be well able to condense the information into the abstract without forgetting important points.
- Second, you can design the abstract to fit around your results — to demonstrate that you have achieved what you hoped to.
Always use past tense in your paper. As you have already conducted the research, you should refer to it in the past tense. Make sure to use clear and concise sentences.
Avoid using jargon. A research paper is a piece of academic writing that should not be subject to any slang. Try not to confuse the reader. If there is anything the reader might not understand, explain it. For example, any abbreviations need to be defined at least once.
Leave out lengthy background information; you need to find the right balance of explaining enough without going into too much detail.
Make sure you get straight to the point. Let someone else have a look; don’t be scared of someone else critiquing your work—your paper could get a lot of attention, so be ready! Let a fellow professional in a similar field, yet not related to your study, have a read. Let them summarize the research back to you to see if you have communicated it well enough throughout the paper.