The abstract of a scientific paper serves two main functions: selection and indexing. Readers use the abstract to decide whether it is worthwhile to read the paper. Indexing databases search abstracts, not full texts, to find relevant results. Therefore, an abstract should both be easy to comprehend and contain all of the key words and phrases of the paper.
Most abstracts follow a strict format that includes the following sections: Background, Methods, Results, and Conclusions. Some journals may require additional sections, such as Objectives or Limitations. Always check with the professor, journal, or competition guidelines to make sure you have the required sections.
The background should be about 2-3 sentences and should only contain the most relevant information. What is known should be stated first, then comes the unknown information and how the study addressed this gap. It is essential to keep the background short – readers are interested in a paper for its results and conclusions.
Next is the methods section. This section should contain enough information for a reader to comprehend the process. Important information in the methods section includes sample size, dosages, duration, preparation, research instruments, and outcome measurements.
Results are the most important section of the abstract and should contain the most details. In the case of a clinical study, present comparisons between different subgroups (treated vs. untreated, young vs. old, male vs. female, etc.). For a paper in which a theorem is proven, the theorem should be limited to simple symbols and a description in words, if possible. You may include the p-value, but other statistics, such as a chi-squared value or degrees of freedom are unnecessary. The results section should contain the “main point” (what your research paper achieved).
The final section of an abstract is a conclusion, which contains the main findings of the study in a few sentences. The major finding, along with any other important findings should be stated. To keep the findings in a general perspective, the author should provide a few implications, or how they affect the field of study.
Turek et. al (2015), quoted below, is one clear example of an abstract that first states the background, then sets up the purpose of the experiment, elaborates on the methods, fleshes out the results, and then puts the results into the context of the original problem stated.
“Adiponectin is an adipokine inversely correlated with obesity, which has beneficial effect on insulin resistance and lipid metabolism. Considering its potential as a therapeutic target in the metabolic disorder contexts, and in order to add knowledge in the area, our study evaluated the ADIPOQ 276G > T polymorphism effect on adiponectin levels, and on lipoproteins of clinical interest in a population sample composed of 211 healthy individuals. Significant effects were observed only among men: the carriers of heterozygous genotype (GT) showed high levels of adiponectin (p = 0.018), while the rare homozygous genotype (TT) gave its carriers a negative phenotype, represented by higher levels of low density lipoprotein cholesterol (LDL-C) (p = 0.004 and p = 0.005) and total cholesterol (TC) (p = 0.010 and p = 0.005) compared to carriers of other genotypes (GG and GT respectively), the independent effect of SNP on LDL-C and TC levels was confirmed by multiple regression analysis (p = 0.008 and p = 0.044). We found no evidence of correlation between circulating adiponectin levels and biochemical markers, which suggests, therefore, an SNP 276G > T independent effect on adiponectin levels and on lipoprotein metabolism in men enrolled in this study.”
Niharika Vattikonda is a sophomore at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Northern Virginia, and she loves biology and computer science. She recently completed a yearlong freshman research project on the effect of electromagnetic fields on E. coli. Niharika enjoys STEM outreach, programming, starting science clubs for girls at elementary schools and volunteering at science fairs and hackathons. When she’s not coding or writing for Scientista, Niharika enjoys debating, participating in Model United Nations, singing, and writing for her own blog, Teen Thoughts on Politics.