Guys – I just realized its been a year since I added the breakdowns of the discussion section of a research paper to the blog, and I completely meant to follow that up with the breakdowns of the scientific abstract.
I mean, I guess I am technically following up with that, even though its a year later…
AND now that I’ve waited, the post on the breakdowns gets to come out at the same time as the videos!
That’s right – videos. Plural! Yay!
So in this post, you’ll find the breakdown of an ideal scientific abstract and its corresponding video, adapted from my Blank Page to Manuscript Draft online course.
And, even better, I am opening up access to the entire abstract module of the course as a complementary week-long email course! This series will include videos on:
- Breakdown of an ideal abstract
- Most common issues I see in abstracts
- How to analyze and edit an abstract
- How to write an abstract from scratch
- Do’s, Don’ts, and what you need to know when writing your abstract
This course is designed to teach you everything you need to know to write a scientific abstract in the most efficient order – first you will learn what a great abstract looks like, then how to analyze an abstract on your own, and then when you are super comfortable with abstracts, you will learn how to write one from scratch with no fuss, no mess, and no wasted time! Awesome!
And, with no further ado – let’s breakdown just what is going on behind a GREAT abstract!
Breakdown of an Ideal Scientific Abstract
Prefer this in video format?
Never fear, we have you covered!
Here, you can find the video to go with this post on my YouTube channel. Don’t forget – if you want the entire complimentary e-course with the other 4 videos, don’t forget to sign up for the email list! No worries – these are completely free!
If you prefer to read the text, keep going!
What's up with these breakdowns?
When I was first starting my business and trying to help others with their papers, I saw so many students going through exactly what I went through when I wrote my first paper.
The advice out there is not at all concrete…”the abstract needs to sell your paper”, “write the abstract to be understood to a general audience”, “be sure to include the importance of your work in your abstract”.
HOW do you include the importance of your work in your abstract?
HOW do you sell your paper with your abstract?
I was a chemical biologist. I operated using formulas and protocols, not vague statements of philosophical concepts.
But when I read papers, I could see that there was a difference between a “good” abstract and everything else, so there must be a way to make this into a formula.
So what I did was spend months (years) analyzing abstracts from everywhere – top journals, field-specific journals. My field, and the field of any of my clients, and then as many different fields as I could manage. “Standard-length” and short abstracts.
To spot the differences, I looked at the abstracts that made me really interested to read a paper and compared those to abstracts that were forgettable.
For real – I have so many files on my computer that look like this while I tried to figure out what separated the forgettable abstracts from the great ones:
In the end, I figured out I was right – there WAS a formula to what made an abstract great.
Once I figured out this formula, I realized I could apply it to literally any abstract out there and see at a glance why one wasn’t as memorable or interesting as it could be.
And just by knowing this, I was able to quickly make any abstract significantly more interesting and memorable. Yay!
(By the way – I eventually did this for every paper section, which forms the backbone of my course! Click here to see the discussion breakdown and video.)
And now I want to impart this knowledge onto you. 🙂
The ideal scientific abstract
In my searching for great abstracts, I came across quite a number of them, which is awesome!
To pick one as an example, I went with this paper titled Genetically Encoded Photocleavable Linkers for Patterned Protein Release from Biomaterials by Shaish et al. and published in JACS. You can find the full text of this paper here -> https://doi.org/10.1021/jacs.9b07239
Take a look at this abstract first, and see if you agree with my assessment of this being an effective and interesting abstract:
In my sorting through abstracts, I found 6 distinct portions of the text (and 1 “extra” that could be located within any of 3 different portions!)
After applying my color scheme, which I will explain next, the abstract looks like below.
Here, you should notice those 6 distinct parts of the text, and the one part where the text is colored yellow:
Here, you can definitely see the 6 distinct parts of the abstract and the different text.
Did you see something similar?
Now, let’s walk through what each of these colors mean, and then go back and examine this abstract again in more detail.
The (kind-of) 6 Key Parts of a Scientific Abstract
In my research on what makes a scientific abstract great, I found that there are 6 key parts (and one bonus part) that are generally included, each of which have their own highlight color.
To be able to break down an abstract to show you what goes where, let’s first review the “what” that we will be looking for.
*Bonus part: the GAP
I know, I know, I said there are 6 key parts, and I didn’t even get to the first one before throwing in an extra. I promise, this is the only one!
And – this part is so dang important in your abstract that if you leave it out, the chances are super high that readers (including journal editors!) will have a hard time seeing why your work needed to exist.
So why is this one special?
This one is what I term THE GAP.
THE GAP is a statement that tells the reader exactly what hole or “gap” in the field your work sought to fill.
Your job here is really to make it 100% clear to the reader why your research project you are presenting here needs to exist, and that is what putting a clear statement of this gap is going to do.
So why is THE GAP not just its own separate number?
Well, due to the nature of the gap, it is possible for it to be the same as the actual text of the first three parts I will explain below – so in my color scheme, THE GAP doesn’t get its own “part” color, and instead gets its own text color within the particular color of the part it fits into.
So in this abstract, look for the yellow text – it can be in any of the first three colors – but MAKE SURE this text is there!
1. Overall problem in a general field
A great abstract is one that gets the attention of as many readers of your target journal as possible, and therefore must be relatable to these readers.
Unfortunately, the things that excite us about our research and make us want to do it aren’t always the same thing that will excite non-experts in our field, so we need to work a bit to make sure the way we present our research is accessible.
To help the reader see why the work you are doing is important, we need to think bigger than just what we did in our paper – we first need to convince them that our entire field of research is worthwhile.
So, think of this first chunk as telling a reader why your FIELD exists.
More specifically – what problem is out there in the world that your field of research exists to solve?
2. Why should the reader care?
People commonly think that if you give someone a piece of information, they will be able to interpret it such that no explanations are required – especially in a document with a short word count!
While that is true to some extent, I can promise you that no two readers will interpret something in the same way and very few of them will interpret it in the way you were hoping.
Therefore, the only way to get a reader to see why they should care that your research was done is to tell them, in no uncertain terms, exactly why they should care.
While it may be possible to combine the overall problem with the text of why the reader should care, it isn’t always. Therefore, always make sure there is always a clearly written reason for why someone should care about the overall reason your field exists.
3. What was previously done or is known?
This part of an abstract is designed to give the reader any information they still need to understand the gap, as it is common to need to explain a bit of previous work in the field to get to this point.
Here, you want to avoid a literature review though – use just enough to convey where there was a problem or missing information that you sought to fix or fill with your research.
This section, though, is going to be the only one that isn’t mandatory!
That means that if the gap can be explained in the first two points, you don’t need to go into more detail on the field and can move along to your next point.
4. What did this paper try to do (hypothesis/objectives)?
This section is another one that is often cut due to assuming the reader will be able to figure it out…but you really don’t want to leave any interpretation or figuring out to the reader, especially when its as important as the main objective of your paper!
For this section, work to sum up the main hypothesis/goal/objective of your paper in one concise sentence that clearly conveys the purpose of your paper.
To make your job easier here, this sentence often starts similarly among papers, with a phrase like “Herein, we…” or “In this paper, we…”.
5. What were the major findings?
Ah, finally, we reach the part of the abstract most people are comfortable with.
Here is the chunk where you provide the reader with an overview of the key points of the paper.
This is usually results, but can also be new or improved methods, technology development, methodology advancement, however you want to word it.
In this section, provide the reader a brief overview of the key points and findings of your paper, focusing on the most important, most surprising, most interesting, etc.
Keep it short and simple, though and definitely don’t sacrifice any other section of the abstract to include more here.
It is more important to set up a great story around your results than it is to provide just one more result.
In fact, your results literally don’t matter if you can’t convey to your reader why they do.
So keep this to 3-5 sentences, and make sure you have sufficient framing before and after to make it clear why these are important.
6. What is the major significance of this?
Oh wait – the scientific abstract isn’t done after we list our findings?
No way! We still have work to do!
Ending abruptly at the results can leave the reader feeling unfulfilled and wondering why this all matters.
Instead, end with one sentence that indicates the importance of your work.
This sentence should convey why the work deserves to be published and/or why scientists or non-scientists should care that this work was done and now exists in the world.
This is the most common sentence I see cut for word count limits, but definitely resist the urge to do this – adding this summary statement of importance is one of the best ways to indicate the impact your work will have on the world!
Breaking down the ideal scientific abstract
So now that we’ve covered what the different parts of the abstract stand for, we can go back to that ideal abstract I colored earlier.
The first thing I want you to notice is the number of sentences corresponding to each part of the abstract:
- Even though based on the number of other “categories” or parts of the abstract very much outnumber the results, note that the results are still the biggest overall “chunk” here.
- Otherwise, you can see the distribution of each sentence in the figure
Now, let’s start at the top of this abstract and work our way down, taking note now of the first sentence:
- Here, the first two categories – the overall problem and why the reader should care – comprise the first sentence. In reality, the entire sentence is both colors, as all of the text fits both categories, but I color it like this so you can see it clearly.
- It is not only fine to have two things in one sentence, it also saves you space!
- Notice how this sentence does a great job of telling the reader why the authors’ FIELD exists.
- Even though the authors probably don’t spend their days thinking of how important it is to control the release of proteins from biomaterials, they still did a great job of realizing that this was the broad type of problem they needed to include for all readers of this journal to understand why this field of work is important.
Next, we have two things going on: both the 3rd part of an abstract AND yellow text:
First, let’s talk about that yellow text –
- Here, we have a very clear statement of a gap – we are learning the exact problems that exist with current systems in clear way that is impossible to miss
- Note this is written negatively…it starts with “despite” to indicate it is an issue
- This might also start with “however” or “unfortunately” or other similar terms.
- With this super clear statement of the problems with existing research, we can see EXACTLY why the authors needed to do the work they are presenting in this paper.
- Without this gap, the reader will be left wondering why this work needed to be done and how important it actually is.
Now we can go back and discuss this lime green color – the background information the reader needs to know to understand this work.
- It is hopefully really obvious now why this color is there – it was needed to present this gap.
- Without the lime green color, the authors’ would not be able to present why they needed to do this work.
- This color is NOT required, but if it is difficult to fit the gap into the first two colors, definitely use it!
- However, if you DO fit the gap into the first two colors, SKIP THIS!
- Don’t include extra information (words) in your abstract that are not needed, and if you can explain why you did this work without using previous research, there is no need to include it!
Moving on to the next color, we see we have the pale green, representing the hypothesis/objective of the work:
- This section is here to ensure that there is a clear statement of the goal of the work.
- Remember – the reader very likely won’t get this on their own, so ensure this clearly worded statement is there!
- Consider using the common phrasing for this section:
- “Herein, we…”
- “In this paper,…”
- “Therefore, we herein…”
Next, we move on to the results section:
- Even with all of the 5 other sections of a scientific abstract, notice that this is still the main section by far
- So including this framing context doesn’t need to take away from the presentation of your work!
- For this part, consider including:
- What you, as an expert, would consider the most interesting. If this wasn’t your paper, what would you be most interested to see?
- Key techniques used or developed
- Important numbers (inhibition constants, percent effectiveness, etc.)
- The most applies results – i.e., what might non-experts be able to relate to?
- Major take-home message. If your reader remembers nothing else, what do you want them to remember?
And finally, we move to the last section – the statement of importance:
- The statement of importance is a GREAT way to show the reader (or editor or reviewer!) why this work deserves to be published
- Try to answer one (or more!) of the following in one concise sentence:
- Why does this work deserve to be published?
- How does this work affect or change the field?
- What can be made/done/calculated now that this work exists?
- How might this work be applied?
- Why should scientists or non-scientists care about this work?
And there you have it – my breakdown of an ideal scientific abstract!
Use this structure to help you write your own abstracts, ensuring that you will hit all of the key points and the importance of your work will be clear.
Now, can you take this information and check out other abstracts in your field? Do you see the same patterns?
Want the full abstract e-course?
For more information on scientific abstracts, I have made the full abstract module from my online course available as an email course.
Like I mentioned above, you will get 4 new videos on top of lifetime access to this one, and can learn about the most common problems I see in scientific abstracts, how to analyze and edit your own, and how to write your own! I also include a final video where I condense all of the key do’s, don’ts, things you need to know, and a checklist for what to do when you are stuck so you can refer back to it anytime you are writing!
And until next time, happy writing! 🙂