What is an abstract?
Here are some Starter for 10 definitions:
An abstract is …
A self-contained, short, and powerful statement that describes a larger work. Components vary according to discipline. An abstract of a social science or scientific work may contain the scope, purpose, results, and contents of the work. An abstract of a humanities work may contain the thesis, background, and conclusion of the larger work. An abstract is not a review, nor does it evaluate the work being abstracted. While it contains key words found in the larger work, the abstract is an original document rather than an excerpted passage.
A condensed version of a longer piece of writing that highlights the major points covered, concisely describes the content and scope of the writing, and reviews the writing’s contents in abbreviated form.
An argument – a text that makes its key point explicit and highlights its contribution to the field (Thomson and Kamler, 2013: 52).
A persuasive snapshot of your work’s main ideas, methods, findings and implications (da Silvia, 2015: 169).
What is the purpose of an abstract?
This may seem obvious but the two main purposes of an abstract are worth stating:
- Readers use abstracts to make a judgement about whether to read your article. If your abstract doesn’t hook them, your article has no chance of being read. It’s that simple.
- Abstracts are used in indexing databases to enable readers to search for, find and retrieve your article. For this reason, your abstract must include the key words that a potential reader will use in their search.
Both of these reasons mean your abstract has to be clear, concise and accurate. Reason one requires that it also has to be informative and engaging. This is a less simple task!
How to write a good abstract for an education journal article?
I typed this question into my browser and got 19, 000, 000 results. Nineteen million. Can that be right? No doubt many of these will be either rubbish or not relevant. I then typed in ‘How to write a good abstract for a gender and education journal article’. That took it down to 3, 230, 000. Less rubbish (probably) but still not much that was actually helpful. Amongst the first few pages, there were some useful and relevant hits from publishers.
Taylor and Francis call the abstract the ‘shop window’ for your article; it is a writing space to ‘display your wares’. While the thought of my article as ‘commodity for sale’ makes me queasy, the advice from T&F on focus, clarity and brevity is useful. However, the advice is quite general so it is best to go and look at your target journal.
What do specific journals have to say about writing abstracts?
The first thing to do is check out ‘Instructions to Authors’ from your target journal.
Sage is the 5th largest publisher. They publish the journal Qualitative Inquiry and advise that ‘The title page should be followed by an abstract of 100 to 150 words.’
Springer publishes the journal Higher Education. If you follow the link to ‘Instructions for Authors’ you will find this advice on abstracts:
‘Please provide an abstract of 150 to 250 words. The abstract should not contain any undefined abbreviations or unspecified references. ‘
Gender and Education, published by Taylor and Francis, advises authors that they will need to submit ‘A non-structured abstract of more than 100 and no more than 150 words’. There is also the option of submitting a video abstract and some helpful advice on how to do this here.
From the Elsevier publisher site, I went to the International Journal of Education Research, from where you can download the Author Information Pack which advises the following:
A concise and factual abstract is required (of no more than 120 words). The abstract should state briefly the purpose of the research, the principal results and major conclusions. An abstract is often presented separately from the article, so it must be able to stand alone. For this reason, References should be avoided, but if essential, then cite the author(s) and year(s). Also, non-standard or uncommon abbreviations should be avoided, but if essential they must be defined at their first mention in the abstract itself.
With Emerald publishers, you have to sign up for their advice on abstracts. You can do so here.
The main usefulness of journal instructions is that they tell you the required word length and provide some advice on certain aspects of style. This is crucial in enabling you to make sure your abstract fits with your chosen journal. But we need more information on content.
What types of abstracts are there?
The type of abstract depends on the type of article you are writing!
The USCLibraries Research Guides lists four different types of abstracts.
The Centre for Academic Success at Birmingham City University say there are two basic types of Abstract
Knight lists four types of Abstracts
Check these out. Be clear about what type of journal article you are writing and, therefore, what sort of abstract you need to write for it. This takes clarity of thought in terms of aims, purpose, scope etc. Most academics find this difficult (even seasoned ones) but this sort of ‘hard thinking’ pays dividends during the long writing process.
Why do I think it’s important to write an abstract with impact
As a journal editor, I often find that authors submit interesting and well-written articles which have poor abstracts. This, in itself, is not enough to reject an article, of course. But what it seems to communicate to an editor is that the author has a) got fed-up, or feels they have run out of time or energy, and just can’t wait to submit their article; b) has difficulty condensing their complex ideas into a very short set of arguments; or c) feels they have ‘done enough’ and that a reviewer will suggest ways to improve it.
To all of the above my response is: this is your work, and it’s your responsibility to send it out into the world the best it can possibly be.
A senior academic pointed out to me a long time ago that much of what we do as academics is free, voluntary labour: we do what we do not because we get paid well (many on precarious contracts in academia know that all too well) but because we care about ideas and knowledge, and because we are part of a shared community of engaged scholars. Her view was that it is ‘intellectual laziness’ to expect others to do work for you that you can do yourself, and that you shouldn’t send work off to journals and get unpaid reviewers (who are our colleagues and friends) to do our work for us. Therefore, the onus is on us to continue doing the job of writing until it is ‘done properly’. ECRs and doctoral students needed, she said, to seek advice from more senior scholars to help them get their work ‘up to the quality and standard’ that was needed prior to submission to a journal. As a doctoral student at the time, this sounded harsh to me, and it took me a while to see through the acerbic tone to realise that the advice is good.
What I know now (having written a fair number) is that an abstract is one of those texts you need to re-write more times than you can imagine because each time it will get more ‘condensed’, accurate, informative and purposeful. Taylor and Francis see the abstract as your ‘shop window’, but I would re-phrase that a little. My view is that the abstract is your academic voice in all its concentrated power; it’s a tool to hail potential readers over, invite them in, and make them want to stay.
- Spend time with your abstract
- Shape it’s structure carefully
- Hone the language, tone and expression
- Include your keywords
- Make it an accurate representation of your article
- Show it (along with your article) to supervisors, critical friends, and mentors and take their advice on re-writing it
- Make it persuasive
- Ensure it grabs your reader so they want to stay with you for the length of your article
Good luck – your abstract may never be ‘perfect’ (there is no such thing anyway) but make it the best you can do. It doesn’t get easier the more you write but you may learn to enjoy the process a bit more!
Some useful advice on writing an Abstract
Books referred to
Silvia, P. (2015) Write it Up. London: American Psychological Association.
Thomson, P. and Kamler, B. (2013) Writing for Peer Reviewed Journals: Strategies for Getting Published. London: Routledge.
Professor of Gender and Higher Education
Sheffield Hallam University