Miguel Panao | Professor and Author

Finding ways to improve scientific writing and academic productivity.

How to create killer abstracts in scientific papers and why

In a previous post about using word count as a method to improve the flow of your scientific writing, I suggested that looking at the right number of words in Abstracts, which is around 250, it’s almost like a blog post. Thus, if we think about Abstracts like blog posts, what are the implications?

abstracts e scientific articles

If there is one thing I read before anything else in a scientific paper, it’s the Abstract. And, honestly, this was the last part I dedicate time when writing a paper. I thought, once you write the conclusions, make it short in the Abstract and add a bit of background and methods. With time I began realizing this was the most important part of an article because it’s what most people read. And above all, you want people to read your work.

There are not many sources for writing a good abstract. However, I guess you don’t need many because there seems to be a preformatted way of writing them.

 

“What are they saying about writing abstracts?”

C. Andrade wrote an article for the Indian Journal of Psychiatry on writing a good abstract. The structure follows the same as a scientific paper:

  • background;
  • methods;
  • results;
  • and conclusions.

The most important part is the results, and Andrade suggests being specific whenever you can because that’s what readers expect.

In another article, Alyssa Colton proposes 5 rules for writing an abstract.

  1. Follow the journal guidelines. An effort worth pursuing although I’m not sure how strict editors can be. An example. Elsevier’s Highlights should be 85 characters long, but many have more than that.
  2. Make sure the abstract has everything you need. The structure is similar to Andrade. An abstract should contain the work’s purpose, methods, thesis, and results. Should be concise and coherent. No citations or references and be specific. Readers like when you do that.
  3. Use keywords. Colton refers to a line found after the abstract. However, I would add use keywords inside the abstract.
  4. Report the results you have, not those you’ll have in the future.
  5. Take good care of the title. No more than 12 words are expressing what you investigated and how using active verbs.

I think these rules are relevant, but enough? Not sure.

 

Abstracts as blog posts?

Does it make any sense writing abstracts with the same intentions as writing killer blog posts?

Killer blog posts focus on high-value content. An abstract should reflect the same image.

Like killer blog posts, you want to influence other people with your research, create greater visibility of what you investigate, or connect with other researchers or trying to express a vision of your topic worth pursuing. These reasons underly why you should write “killer” abstracts.

 

How to write a killer abstract like a killer blog post

To develop a strategy for writing abstracts the way we write blog posts, I’m experimenting a different outline relatively to the more classic version. However, the outcome intended is the same. The structure I’m exploring is the following:

  • Lead paragraph
  • Connect (with reader)
  • Solution (investigated in the research work)
  • Results and Conclusions

Lead paragraph

The first 2-3 sentences which include the topic’s background should capture the attention of the reader. You must realize these are the first lines anyone reads about your work. Therefore, you probably need to rewrite this part until you feel it leads the reader to dive into your work.

Also, this part is where you express why this topic is worth to investigate. People’s attention is more easily connect with why you do your research than with what you do and how.

Connect

If you can capture your reader’s attention, now you need to connect with him. We connect with other through personal histories, but in the case of an abstract, the connection comes through the research question. What puzzles you should puzzle the reader.

Solution

Once you capture your reader’s attention and connect with him through the research question, it’s time to present your unique solution. It means your approach, methods and some specific information.

Result

Finally, it is time to show your results and conclusion. This part is the most critical of your abstract. It should be the climax of your abstract leading the reader to go deeper into the article itself. Everything that experts recommended for writing the results and conclusion parts is valid in the approach I’m experimenting. The difference is the sense of having a transformative vision of reality in mind.

Every scientific article should provide new insight into how we perceive reality. It could be a droplet impinging onto a surface, an analysis of a philosophical from a unique perspective, a new compound for a drug, or a better understanding of fluid flow processes. A new scientific insight always changes how we experience and think about the world. Some contributions are more evident in producing this change, others less. If you don’t believe your results or conclusions can perform this change, wait until you think they do.


Don’t think it needs to be perfect to be publishable. Science drives on imperfection, new questions, a deep desire to know and the drive to share what we learn.


Question: what’s your experience with writing abstracts? Have you ever thought about their importance?

About Miguel Panao

I am a Professor at the University of Coimbra in Mechanical Engineering. I am also author of books in the fields of environmental ethics and Science and Religion. From the several research projects, this site is personal and dedicated to the search for the best approaches, tools, techniques to improve scientific productivity.

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