How to Write an Abstract?

Researchers write abstracts to make a selection of their work for presentation at scientific gatherings such as conferences and seminars. Writing a good abstract is not an easy task and many young researchers have no idea how to summarize the results of so many months of work into 300 to 400 words. Nonetheless, mastering the skill of abstract writing is useful and increases the chance that your research will be selected for presentation.

The length of abstracts is usually determined by directors of scientific meetings. Paying attention to the published details of the meetings such as deadlines and suggested format is of utmost importance, since reviewers simply discard the abstracts that do not comply with the stated rules. 

Each scientific abstract has five unique sections: Title and Author Information, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Conclusions. Now let’s see what each section contains.

Title and Author Information: The title is the gist of your abstract and must persuade reviewers that the topic is significant, related and innovative. In order to create a convincing title, you can make different sentences by selecting 6 to 10 key words in the abstract and choose the one that better represents the essential message. The format of the title, such as all capital letters, all bold, etc.  is usually determined by organizers of the scientific conference.  

The list of authors’ names and their institutional affiliations must follow the title of the abstract. Normally the first author listed will make the oral presentation. For example, the first author may need to be a member of the professional society that sponsors the research meeting. The abstract instructions always contain this information.

Introduction: This part consists of a few sentences outlining the questions that the research address. The first sentence of the introduction should be as interesting and dramatic as possible.  If you don’t have space restriction, provide a short review of the known facts about the addressed problems, what remains unknown and how your research problem is supposed to fill the gaps. The final sentence of the introduction explains the purpose of the study or its priori hypothesis.

Methods: This is the most difficult section of the abstract to write and it must be as concise as possible so that the whole abstract fit into a box but detailed enough to reveal the validity of the work. The following information are usually mentioned in most of clinical abstracts: research design, research setting, the number of participants (patients) in the study and the way they are selected, a description of intervention (if applicable); a list of outcome variables and the way they are measured. In the end, the statistical methods used for the data analysis should be described.  

Results: The description of the subjects that were included and excluded from the study comes at the beginning of this section. Give the reason for the exclusion of the subjects. Then, list the frequencies of the most important variables. You can also present comparisons of the outcome variables between various subgroups within the study (treated vs. untreated, young vs. old, male vs. female, and so forth). If the rules allow, you can present this type of data in a table and this way make an optimum use of the space. Numerical results should include standard deviations or 95% confidence limits and the level of statistical significance. If your results are not statistically significant, present the power of your study (beta-error rate) to detect a difference.

Conclusion: State what can be concluded and its inferences in brief. The data provided in the abstract must support the conclusions. Do not present your unproven personal opinion. If you have the space, address the generalizability of the results to populations other than that studied and the weaknesses of the study.

The distinctive language of research literature communicates meaning to other researchers in a concise and precise way. The abstract should preserve this language as well.  See the Glossary of commonly used research terms.

Do not use medical jargon and avoid excessive medical abbreviations when writing the abstract. The number of abbreviations should not exceed three and use commonly used abbreviations. Write the full form of abbreviations the first time they appear in the text, except in cases that are typically know in their abbreviated form (e.g., CBC).

A good abstract, though not lengthy, may take several days to write. Ask your mentor to review your abstract and modify it based on the given feedback. Also, let other people read your draft and check for clarity, spelling and grammatical mistake.  A good way to spot grammatical mistakes and word omissions is by reading your work aloud.

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