Writing an abstract: Guidelines
What is an abstract?
An abstract is a very short, written summary of your research or findings. It is an independent statement that briefly conveys the salient and essential information of a manuscript, text, poster or presentation.
Purpose of an abstract:
- Help readers decide if they should read an entire article, listen to a particular presentation or view a particular poster.
- Help readers remember key findings on a topic.
- Help readers better understand a manuscript, text, presentation or poster.
The style of an abstract should be concise and clear. Readers do not expect the abstract to have the same sentence structure flow of a complete manuscript. Rather, the abstract’s wording should be very direct.
- Descriptive Abstract
- Tells readers what information the report, article, paper or poster contains.
- Includes the purpose, methods and scope of the report, article, paper or poster.
- Does not provide results, conclusions or recommendations.
- Is always very short, usually under 100 words.
- Introduces the subject to readers, who must then read the report, article or paper to find out the author’s results, conclusions or recommendations.
- Informative Abstract
- Communicates specific information from the report, article, paper, poster or presentation.
- Includes the purpose, methods and scope of the report, poster, article, paper or presentation.
- Provides the results, conclusions and recommendations of the work.
- Is generally a paragraph to a page or two, depending upon the length of the original work and the allowable length of the abstract.
- Is the most common type of abstract for scientific meetings.
- Allows readers to decide whether they want to read the report, listen to the presentation or view the poster.
Qualities of a good abstract:
- Allow readers to decide whether they want to read the report, listen to the presentation or view the poster.
- Is understandable to a wide audience from different disciplines.
- Adds no new information but simply summarizes the report.
- Provides logical connections or transitions between the information included.
- Follows the chronology or the work.
- Uses an introduction, methods, results and conclusion based format.
- Uses one or more well developed paragraphs: these are unified, coherent, concise and able to function independently.
- Often uses passive verbs to downplay the author and emphasize the information.
- Avoids using adverbs and adjectives.
Tips on writing scientific abstracts:
- Be clear, concise and brief.
- Avoid abbreviations and jargon.
- If abbreviations are necessary, define them when they first appear within the text, (e.g. Lipopolysaccharide (LPS)).
- Describe the methods and results in the past tense.
- Discuss the conclusions in the present tense, avoid perfect tenses.
- Use bold face fonts to highlight headings.
- Use paragraphs or indentations to separate blocks of text.
- Use 12 point font or greater to facilitate reading and photocopying.
- The use of "I" and "we" are preferable to the third person and the passive.
- Have several people independently evaluate the abstract for content, completeness, grammar, punctuation and spelling.
- Ensure sufficient time to compose the abstract-at least 5 or 6 hours.
- Strictly adhere to abstract guidelines, format requirements, and deadlines.
Instructions to Authors:
Abstracts intended for inclusion in manuscripts, medical conferences or scientific meetings may have specific restrictions on the number of authors, on font size, abstract size or word count, etc. It is imperative that you STRICTLY adhere to these guidelines or risk having the abstract returned or rejected outright. The technical specifications of the abstract are defined in the “Call for Abstracts” section in most professional society meeting application booklets or in the “Instructions to Authors” section for a given journal. Many abstract submission forms have a border that the abstract must be contained within. Failure to remain within the borders may result in portions of the abstract being cut off during publication. Resist the urge to use a smaller-than-allowed font size to create more space as the abstracts are often published in reduced size and will become quite unintelligible.
Length of abstract:
This is generally defined either by word count (e.g. 350 words), and/or by a border into which the abstract must fit. Word counts include ALL words even the author’s names and title.
- Capitalize the title and use bold face type.
- The title should be short, clear and specific.
- Avoid abbreviations, jargon and acronyms.
- The primary author is the individual who has contributed the greatest amount of work and intellectual effort to the project.
- The primary author should be listed first and followed in order by authors who put forth correspondingly less effort. The last author is often the most senior member of the group such as the mentor, chairman, attending physician, director, etc.
- Keep the number of authors to a minimum. The maximum number may be defined by the journal or society.
- All authors appearing on the abstract are responsible for the content of the abstract and the work it describes.
- Only individuals who have made a substantive contribution to the work should appear as an author. It is inappropriate and unethical to provide a gift authorship to someone who is unfamiliar with the work. It is also inappropriate and unethical to deny authorship to someone who is familiar with the work.
- Decide in advance of starting the research project who will appear on the abstract and the order of their appearance.
- Additional information about authorship can be found on the International Committee of Medical Journal Editors website.
- Indicate the department, section (optional), institution, city and state (and country if the author/institution is foreign)
- If the authors hail from different institutions, correlate a superscript number at the end of the author’s name with the institution and location below the authors names.
- Describe what the study sought to determine (objective) or the purpose for the study.
- State the research question or hypothesis (optional).
- State the background, importance or necessity of the study.
- Use past tense.
Study design/Materials and Methods:
- Describe the general design of the experiment or study.
- Describe the methodologies in chronological order of appearance.
- Include the use of controls, inclusion/exclusion criteria, patient populations, numbers per group, type of model or cell line(s) used, how data were analyzed.
- Use generic names for drugs. If you must use a proprietary name, identify the company.
- Italicize organism names and Latin terminology such as in vivo, in utero, etc.
- Avoid cluttering the design section with too much minutiae.
- The Methods section should be a narrative not a numbered list of procedures.
- Include appropriate units for any numerical figures presented.
- Indicate any trademarked devices, drugs or reagents used.
- Use past tense.
- May be either in narrative, graphical or tabular form.
- Be sure to adequately label tables and graphs.
- Should be interpretable exclusive of the other sections.
- Should appear in a manner that is chronologically consistent with the study design.
- Include appropriate units (traditional/SI) for any numerical data.
- Include statistical support for any data that is stated as being either significant or non-significant.
- Use past tense.
- Address each study objective described in the Introduction section.
- Address any limitations or shortcomings of the experimental design or treatment of data.
- Provide a sentence that synthesizes the data presented.
- Provide a summary sentence that relates this work to the “big picture” (optional).
- Use past tense.
- Indicate referenced statements with a number in parenthesis or superscript that correlates with the full reference at the end of the text (see example).
Examples of how to cite literature:
- Faro S. Chlamydia trachomatis infection in women. J Reprod Med 1995;30:273-8.
- Sweet RL, Gibbs RS, eds. Infectious Diseases of the Female Genital Tract, 3rd ed. Baltimore,MD: Williams & Wilkins: 1998;1320.
Chapter in book
- Washington AE, Johnson RE, Sanders LL. Incidence of Chlamydia trachomatis infections in the United States. In Vaginal Surgery. Oriel D, Ridgway G, Schachter J, et al., eds. New York; John Wiley & Sons, 1995;21-35.
- Recognize a company for providing pharmaceuticals, reagents or devices.
- Recognize a sponsor for funding or grant support.
- Recognize individuals or who have served as a consultant or otherwise assisted in the work (e.g. pathologist).