Since the post on breaking down an ideal discussion section was one of the most popular ones we’ve had on the site, we’re going to do that again with ABSTRACTS! 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 now if you’re ready, let’s break down just what is going on behind a GREAT abstract!
Breakdown of an ideal scientific abstract
Prefer this as a video?
Never fear, we have you covered!
Here, you can find the video to go with this post on my YouTube channel.
Okay - so what exactly is a breakdown?
Before I get started, I’m going to quickly cover what a break down is on my site.
If you are already familiar from the discussion breakdown, you can skip ahead to the:
When I was first starting out trying to help others with their papers, so many students were suffering exactly like I was when I wrote my first paper.
I struggled so much to find useful advice… ”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 I spent 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 in 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. 🙂
BREAKDOWN of an ideal scientific ABSTRACT
In my searching for great abstracts, I came across quite a number of them – which is awesome!
To pick one 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 quick read of this abstract.
- Does anything stand out?
- What different “parts” do you notice in this abstract?
- Do you agree this is effective and interesting?
Given the critical role that proteins play in almost all biological processes, there is great interest in controlling their presentation within and release from biomaterials. Despite such outstanding enthusiasm, previously developed strategies in this regard result in ill-defined and heterogeneous populations with substantially decreased activity, precluding their successful application to fragile species including growth factors. Here, we introduce a modular and scalable method for creating monodisperse, genetically encoded chimeras that enable bioactive proteins to be immobilized within and subsequently photoreleased from polymeric hydrogels. Building upon recent developments in chemoenzymatic reactions, bioorthogonal chemistry, and optogenetics, we tether fluorescent proteins, model enzymes, and growth factors site-specifically to gel biomaterials through a photocleavable protein (PhoCl) that undergoes irreversible backbone photoscission upon exposure to cytocompatible visible light (λ ≈ 400 nm) in a dose-dependent manner. Mask-based and laser-scanning lithographic strategies using commonly available light sources are employed to spatiotemporally pattern protein release from hydrogels while retaining their full activity. The photopatterned epidermal growth factor presentation is exploited to promote anisotropic cellular proliferation in 3D. We expect these methods to be broadly useful for applications in diagnostics, drug delivery, and regenerative medicine.
Now, here is what each of these colors mean, and roughly how much space in the abstract was devoted to each part.
The first thing I want you to notice is the number of sentences corresponding to each part of the abstract.
(The yellow text will be covered in a minute….)
- 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
Yellow text - THE GAP
This 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 color?
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 A GAP (the yellow text) – it can be in any of the first three colors – but MAKE SURE this text is there and MAKE SURE this is CLEARLY SPELLED OUT!
Now, let’s start at the top of this abstract and work our way down.
Sentence 1 - Define a major problem and give a reason to care
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?
- 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.
- Notice that this sentence doesn’t just state a problem – needing to control proteins in biomaterials – it also relates this in a way readers will understand.
It is a common misconception in science that giving someone a piece of information will allow them to interpret it such that no explanations are required…
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.
Sentence 2 (OPTIONAL) - Necessary background
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!
Here, you want to avoid a literature review though – use just enough to convey a gap – where there was a problem or missing information that you sought to fix or fill with your research.
This section is 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.
Sentence 3 - The goal of this paper
Moving on to the next color, we have the pale green, representing the goal of the work:
This section is another 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. Consider:
- “Herein, we…”
- “In this paper,…”
- “Therefore, we herein…”
–>PRO-TIP for solving a common problem – are reviewers trying to expand your paper beyond your scope?
Make sure this sentence is included in your abstract (and your introduction!)
Setting the scope of your work right up front help manage reader expectations – don’t leave them disappointed and thinking you should have done something else…
Sentences 4-8 - Key results
Ah, finally, we reach the part of the abstract most people are comfortable with.
Here is where you provide the reader with an overview of the key points of the paper.
NOTICE: Even with all of the 5 other sections of a scientific abstract, is still the main section by far…
- So including this framing context doesn’t need to take away from the presentation of your work!
This section usually includes results, but can also be new or improved methods, technology development, methodology advancement, or whatever you need to convey the key progress that was made in this paper.
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.
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?
Last sentence - Why is this work important?
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!
To help you write, 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?
Remember, for an in-depth look at this break down and:
- The most common mistakes and HOW TO AVOID THEM
- How to edit your own abstracts
- How to write your abstract from scratch
Check out my COMPLETELY FREE 5-day abstract email course.
And until next time, happy writing! 🙂