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Research Abstracts Can Be Cool!

A research abstract is important. It’s often the only section of an article an uncommitted reader might look at. An abstract is not merely a pro forma section that you ‘have to’ start your paper with. So make your abstract anything but “abstract” – make it look cool.

My co-authors and I once submitted a journal article. We were pleased with it from a technical point of view. However, one peer reviewer was quite insistent: we still needed to polish our research abstract and introduction. The reviewer was right.

Make your abstract valuable by highlighting your key results and get that uncommitted reader interested in your paper. Give an appealing summary of your paper’s content followed by a short outline of your research results.

Let your research abstract tell the reader why you believe your work to be important.

Even if you wrote your paper in another language than English, your abstract usually needs to have an English version. The main purpose is to let the reader decide whether your paper is relevant to him or her.

And what about those five or six words following a research abstract? Those are keywords you need to provide at the end of your abstract. They will let other researchers easily find the online version of your own and similar papers by typing a few of those words.

What to include in your research abstract:
  • The title of your paper or article
  • Your name and the names of the co-authors
  • The date of your paper
  • The main topic of your paper
  • The purpose of your paper
  • The methodology used for your research
  • Your main results, conclusions or recommendations
Your abstract should follow the same logical flow as your paper:
  • Start with the motivation behind your paper.
  • Mention the open problem that your research has tried to solve.
  • Then mention the progress towards the research community’s goals.
  • Mention the approach/methodology your used for your research.
  • Mention the difficulties of your research problem.
  • Give a precise statement about the results of your research with possible implications and utilizations based on your results.
What makes for a ‘good’ research abstract:

Overall, your abstract should have the following properties:

  • Write two or three coherent and brief paragraphs.
  • Make sure it contains an introduction / body / conclusion, presenting the goal, results, conclusions and recommendations.
  • Write your abstract after you have finished your paper.
  • Follow the same chronology as your paper.
  • Show logical links between the different pieces of information.
  • Don’t add new information but give a summary of your research instead.
  • Use more passive sentences than in the remainder of your paper, this to emphasize the content (and not you, the author)
  • Be concise: 200 to 350 words should suffice for a standard journal abstract (MA thesis: 150-250, PhD dissertation: 150-300)

A journal editor or peer reviewer expects the abstract to obey the word limit. It is not good practice to use formulas or terms that are vague and not defined. Although most papers have a separate section for keywords, you may use most of the keywords within the abstract. Many keywords are also standard categories, so try to be consistent and use keywords similar to other published related papers. And last but not least, the keywords you choose should be precise as they are often the basis on which your paper is assigned to a specific reviewer with the same interest.

 

Some examples of English language use in a research abstract:
The introduction: (although you should use the present tense, past tenses are acceptable)
  • The purpose of this study is to investigate the effects of … on …
  • The goals of this study are to determine …
  • The primary purpose of this paper is to determine …
  • This research is specifically concerned with the effect of … on …
  • This study is an initial attempt to investigate the relationship …
  • This paper has two major purposes: (1) to research … (2) to demonstrate …
  • The aim of this study is to identify the characteristics of …
  • The major objective of our research paper is to …
  • The aim / goal of the present paper is to …
  • This thesis discusses / describes / analyses / studies / focuses on / deals with …
  • This dissertation is aimed at developing / explaining / improving / testing …
  • This project was designed to …
The methodology: (usually in the past tense)
  • This study was conducted in Leuven and Amsterdam; the empirical part was conducted in May 2017…
  • Data for this study / research were collected…
  • Data for this study were gathered / obtained from [by, through, with the help of, among]…
  • The subjects of this study were…
  • The subjects were randomly selected. The sample was selected from…
  • Sixty student respondents served as subjects in a study designed to investigate… Three groups, each consisting of…, were formed to…
  • A questionnaire was offered / sent / distributed / mailed to…
  • Our questionnaire investigated how respondents view their…
  • Respondents filled in a form / indicated their preferences / rated each item.
  • Responses were made on a 5-point Likert scale ranging from… to… The response rate was… All sixty subjects participated in the study. Interviews were conducted by / with… The interviews were recorded on…
The conclusion: (you can use either the present or past tense)
  • These results suggest that…
  • The results show that / reveal… It was concluded that…
  • This study / survey shows / supports / questions / implies / indicates…
  • On the basis of the results of this research, it can be concluded that … The results provide some support for… (-ing)…
  • The results did not support the expectations that…
  • These data support the view that…

Recommended vocabulary for your abstract:

Verbs:

show, demonstrate, illustrate, prove, argue, examine, explore, look into, consider, deal with, address, involve, relate to, refer to, draw on, explain, investigate, highlight, outline, provide an overview of, define, distinguish between, indicate, support, reveal, suggest, conclude, recommend.

Nouns:

intention, purpose, aim, goal, objective, thesis, argument, issue, assumptions, methods, premises, results, conclusions, outcome, recommendations.

Conjunctions:

however, first, second, then, finally, thus, for example, furthermore, in addition, in conclusion, by contrast, nonetheless, consequently.

For graduate students needing to write a dissertation abstract, I also recommend this post by Pat Thomson: https://patthomson.net/2013/12/11/writing-the-thesis-abstract/