Writing the abstract.

The abstract is an important part of your report and will in most cases be the sole determinant of the impact of the research you did (impact meaning “how many people out there read and cited your paper/report?”). Today there is so much information around that your article/report will be very hard to spot. Any researcher in search of literature will rely solely on the abstract of an article/report before deciding whether that article is of any interest and whether he/she should bother reading it. If the abstract does not in a clear and concise manner say what you did, your larger article/report text will not be attractive to anyone because they will not know what is in it (because they don’t have time and do not see why they should read your article/report). So it is better you spend some time writing a good abstract (abstract is also called “executive summary” in the business world).

The abstract is normally written as a stand-alone text (ranging from a paragraph to a whole page or more) that summarizes your article/report. In order to know what should be in an abstract consider what the abstract will be used for:

  1. Knowing your research problem: Maybe the single most important reason a researcher will read your article/report is because you are trying to solve the same research problem as he/she is. It is important that your abstract includes a short and concise description of your research problem, preferably stated using the terms and jargon of the research field. You should also in one sentence indicate any theoretical background you have based your work on.
  2. Your research method and approach: The same problem can be addressed in radically different ways. E.g. the problem of aging in place can be addressed architecturally, medically, socially/politically, technologically etc. If your research is related to e.g. solving the problem of aging in place, and you constructed and tested a piece of technology to this end, you should emphasize this in you abstract by saying that your approach/method was that of developing and testing technology (and not, say, changing public opinion about aging in place). Or that you conducted field studies, or that your work is analytical and you have studied the literature.
  3. Your results: In order to allow others evaluate whether your research has novelty or not, you should summarize your most important results and findings in your abstract. There is no meaning in hiding your results, and the abstract is the best place to expose those wonderful results!
  4. Conclusions and implications: besides the findings, it is also important that you give some hints about what your findings imply to research and practice. For instance: “Our findings show that autonomous cars can be safely used in Manhattan”. Or “Our findings show that there is need for more research” (Researchers like this last one!).
  5. Archiving and search: Abstracts are archived in databases and are in many cases the only part of your text that will be subject to search by search engines. Although most search engines search also inside an article/text, searching abstract is of more value if the most important terms and keywords are present in it.

So, go ahead and write your abstract now!

Web resources:

  • Example abstract: One of the better abstracts I have seen lately. It is from the paper titled “A Developers Bill of Rights: What Open Source Developers Want in a Software License” by Alan MacCormack. The abstracts is so well-written that it gives a complete overview of what MacCormack’s paper is all about. The abstract starts with a problem definition, gives a short motivation for the problem, tells how he addressed the problem, i.e. methodology, and what the results were. The abstract concludes with an optional part on the usefulness of the paper in general.
  • How to get your abstract rejected. By Mary-Claire van Leunen and Richard Lipton. It gives some advise specific to ACM SigSoft conferences, but still a good read.
  • Advise to authors of extended abstracts. By William Pugh. Some conferences require what is called an extended abstract for their first round of submission. An abstract for a thesis does not need to be 2-3 pages (as an extended abstract will be). However, there are some very useful hints in this page.

1 comment for “Writing the abstract.

  1. December 18, 2008 at 10:31

    Looking at some medical literature lately, I see now how unstructured computer science abstracts can look like for outsiders. Take a look at the following abstract from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19075206?dopt=Abstract

    “BACKGROUND: Home-based rehabilitation is a promising approach to improve access to pulmonary rehabilitation. OBJECTIVE: To assess whether self-monitored, home-based rehabilitation is as effective as outpatient, hospital-based rehabilitation in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). DESIGN: Randomized, multicenter, noninferiority trial. SETTING: 10 academic and community medical centers in Canada. PATIENTS: 252 patients with moderate to severe COPD. INTERVENTION: After a 4-week education program, patients took part in home-based rehabilitation or outpatient, hospital-based rehabilitation for 8 weeks. They were followed for 40 weeks to complete the 1-year study. MEASUREMENTS: The primary outcome was the change in Chronic Respiratory Questionnaire dyspnea subscale score at 1 year. The primary analysis took a modified intention-to-treat approach by using all patients who provided data at the specified follow-up time, regardless of their level of adherence. The analysis used regression modeling that adjusted for the effects of center, sex, and baseline level. All differences were computed as home intervention minus outpatient intervention. RESULTS: Both interventions produced similar improvements in the Chronic Respiratory Questionnaire dyspnea subscale at 1 year: improvement in dyspnea of 0.62 (95% CI, 0.43 to 0.80) units in the home intervention (n = 107) and 0.46 (CI, 0.28 to 0.64) units in the outpatient intervention (n = 109). The difference between the 2 treatments at 1 year was small and clinically unimportant. The 95% CI of the difference did not exceed the prespecified noninferiority margin of 0.5: difference in dyspnea score of 0.16 (CI, -0.08 to 0.40). Most adverse events were related to COPD exacerbations. No serious adverse event was considered to be related to the study intervention. LIMITATION: The contribution of the educational program to the improvement in health status and exercise tolerance cannot be ascertained. CONCLUSION: Home rehabilitation is a useful, equivalent alternative to outpatient rehabilitation in patients with COPD.”

    Reading the abstract, you really don’t need to read the paper if you are not specially interested in the details!

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