BIO 190—Scientific Communication I

Writing an abstract

An abstract is a specific kind of a summary included with various kinds of scientific publications.

How do abstracts differ from other summaries?

There are a lot of different ways to summarize a scientific article or other document. The title itself is sort of a one-line summary. An outline is also a summary. An “executive summary” is often a statement of the basic idea in simple terms. The National Science Foundation requires a summary of a grant proposal in non-technical language for an educated non-scientist.

An abstract has certain features that set it aside from these.

  • It is always short.
  • It is always written as a single paragraph (even though many abstracts strain the textbook definition of a paragraph).
  • It is written for the same audience as the article, so it uses the same level of technical language.
  • It always summarizes the major points of the results.
  • It ordinarily summarizes the major points of the materials and methods, and of the discussion.
  • In most disciplines, it never includes bibliographic citations.

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When are abstracts used?

An abstract is an ordinary part of a research article in a journal; only a small percentage of journals do not require them. Abstracts are also usual for review articles. There are other places where abstracts are used, as well:

  • for chapters in a book, especially if each chapter has a different author
  • in library reference tools, such as Biological Abstracts, even if the article being indexed lacked an abstract (people are hired to write abstracts for these)
  • for presentations at scientific meetings (often the “published abstract” is the only written record of such a presentation)

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How are abstracts written?

The more familiar you are with the contents of an article, the easier it is to write an abstract. If you wrote the article yourself, you obviously know what is in it, but professional abstract writers routinely make abstracts of articles they haven’t written, and you can, too. The first step is to identify the major point or points of the article. Sometimes it helps to make an outline, but that is not always necessary. When you have written down the main points, then look to see what information is crucial to lead up to those points. The research methods might be important if they are new or unusual, but if they are standard, they only need to be referred to briefly. Next, write down the conclusions that are drawn from the main points. When you are done, you will have something like this:

  1. introductory statement, including statement of the problem to be addressed (sometimes not needed)
  2. research methodology (described at length only if it is unusual)
  3. results or other main points (absolutely essential)
  4. concluding statement, telling what the results mean

Yes, this is sort of a “mini-outline”. Next, you turn it into a paragraph. Scientists have grappled for years over the appropriate way to talk about discoveries: should it be “we measured ion concentration in the blood” or “ion concentration in the blood was measured”? The first example is in the active voice and the second example is in the passive voice; modern scientific style prefers the active voice. Abstracts are often an exception, but only if the passive voice reduces the total number of letters and words. With abstracts, the bottom line is brevity: They should be as short as possible and still include the important information.

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Where to find examples of abstracts

The best source of example abstracts is journal articles. Go to the library and look at biology journals, or look at electronic journals on the web. Read the abstract; read the article. Pick the best ones, the examples where the abstract makes the article easier to read, and figure out how they do it. Not everyone writes good abstracts, even in refereed journals, but the more abstracts you read, the easier it is to spot the good ones.

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Citation: Clark, Curtis. 2001. BIO 190 - Writing an abstract. California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, /~jcclark/classes/bio190/abstract.html.


These are official class materials of BIO 190 as taught at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona, by Curtis Clark. They are subject to change without notice to anyone but students currently enrolled in the class.

Summer Quarter, 2001
© 2001 by Curtis Clark