The abstract structure generally follows that of
the wider paper or thesis, with sections corresponding to aspects
of the introduction, methods, results and discussion. As
essentially micro-theses, abstracts are short, but writing them is
deceivingly hard, as they need to be packed with a lot of
information. In addition many people think they are easy and
leave them to the night before to write. This is a
mistake. The abstract is the first thing a person reads on
your proposal or thesis – a bad abstract will put the reader off,
not provide enough information on your study, and generally give
the reader a bad impression. A good abstract sets you up for
success. We provide a sentence by sentence guide below and
will then review two abstracts. Good luck and start
Section 1. (1 sentence) Overview of problem, reference to broader question being investigated. Should be short and relatively interesting/punchy.
Section 2. (1 sentence) Focused overview of what is unknown, providing context for the study and potentially including the aims or goals. Some abstracts will state the goal or hypothesis within this sentence.
Section 3. (1-3 sentences). Methods you undertook to address the problem. This section should include an overview of the methods used, in enough detail to give the reader a general idea of what you did, but not in so much detail that the abstract becomes long and cumbersome. Including the sample size(s) and types of analyses used is appropriate in some cases, but it is usually inappropriate to quote numerical values from statistical tests, e.g. p values.
Section 4. (2-4 sentences). General results and outcomes, stating the major, significant results.
Secondly, we’ll look at an abstract by Bone and Keough, from a paper published in Marine Ecology. The abstract comprises 9 sentences, and comes in at 291 words (just under 300-word limit for the journal!) I’ve split the abstract into 7 sections – identify the main message or purpose of each section, and see if you can put the abstract back together into its original form. Does the finished abstract show a clear logical progression? Does it give sufficient information on the background, methods and results?