by Prasad P. Velu
An Abstract is a brief summary of a research project or scientific article, often found on the first page of the aforementioned article. It serves to provide the reader with a gist of the highlights of the work and often helps the reader decide if the following article is of interest/relevance to them before reading the article in full.
The ability to write good abstracts is thus useful if you’re looking to submit your research to a meeting or if you’re looking to convince readers to read your scientific article. Abstracts can be submitted to academic meetings and conferences for consideration. If the organizers of the meeting are interested in the abstract submitted, they then offer the authors of the abstract the opportunity to present their work in poster or oral presentation format. These abstracts are often made available to attendees/delegates of academic meetings in the conference programme or as a supplementary issue to a journal.
Abstracts can vary in length from 200 to up to 350 words, depending on the specifications of the journal/meeting. However, most abstracts consist of several sections: Introduction/Aims, Methods, Results and Conclusion. You will notice that these sub-headings are similar to those used when outlining any research project/article. Depending on requirements, some abstracts allow for illustrations or tables. Similarly, some abstracts also incorporate references.
Specific information on things to include in each section can be found below:
- All abstracts should begin with the title of the project, names of authors in order and the institutions the authors are affiliated with/institution where the work was conducted
- Introduction/Aims – This section should consist of 2 to 3 sentences detailing background information needed to understand subsequent parts of the abstract, highlighting the potential clinical relevance of the study and most importantly – clearly outlining the aims of the study. Laboratory projects may need to provide more background information, but this should be done as succinctly as possible.
- Methods – This section should be kept simple and basic, allowing first time readers to gain an understanding of how the authors attempted to answer the research question, but not providing unnecessary details about the methodology (again, an important consideration for laboratory projects). This section can be used to highlight specific strengths of the study (ie. large sample size, data pooled from multiple sources/centres or use of new/sophisticated laboratory techniques, etc).
- Results – The majority of the abstract should be dedicated to this section. Authors should provide a brief summary of relevant results, especially results that address aims of the study/research question. Judicious use of statistics (ie. Supporting a claim of ‘statistical significance’ with P values) helps to highlight the validity of the data and convincing the reader of the importance of the work conducted. The results highlighted should also correlate with any conclusions made in the following section.
- Conclusion – This section should place the results obtained in context, establish appropriate conclusions (once again, in relation to study aims highlighted earlier) and highlight the clinical relevance of the data obtained. Suggestions of future work highlight the author’s ability to be critical of their own work and an awareness of how the results presented can be improved upon towards achieving clinical relevance and a change in current practice.
General tips for writing effective abstracts:
- Confirm the specifics of the abstract that you are to write before you start: word count, whether illustrations, tables and references are required
- Start early and identify the abstract submission deadline for the meeting you’re looking to submit your abstract to
- Have all the authors contribute towards writing and proof-reading an abstract before it is due for submission
- Have a colleague who is unfamiliar with the project read the abstract to see if they can understand the key points following an initial read. Remember, your abstract might be rea by someone working out-with your field of research
- Highlight statistical significance using P values (or equivalent indices)
- Emphasise the strengths of your research and the significance of your results
- Do not be overly critical of any weaknesses – these points can be discussed during the meeting with your poster or during an oral presentation