Abstracts, Literature Reviews, and Annotated Bibliographies: Home
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What is an Abstract?
An abstract is a summary of points (as of a writing) usually presented in skeletal form ; also : something that summarizes or concentrates the essentials of a larger thing or several things. (Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online)
An abstract is a brief summary of a research article, thesis, review, conference proceeding or any in-depth analysis of a particular subject or discipline, and is often used to help the reader quickly ascertain the paper's purpose. When used, an abstract always appears at the beginning of a manuscript, acting as the point-of-entry for any given scientific paper or patent application. Abstraction and indexing services are available for a number of academic disciplines, aimed at compiling a body of literature for that particular subject. (Wikipedia)
An abstract is a brief, comprehensive summary of the contents of an article. It allows readers to survey the contents of an article quickly. Readers often decide on the basis of the abstract whether to read the entire article. A good abstract should be: ACCURATE --it should reflect the purpose and content of the manuscript. COHERENT --write in clear and concise language. Use the active rather than the passive voice (e.g., investigated instead of investigation of). CONCISE --be brief but make each sentence maximally informative, especially the lead sentence. Begin the abstract with the most important points. The abstract should be dense with information. ( Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association)
An abstract of a report of an empirical study should describe: (1) the problem under investigation (2) the participants with specific characteristics such as age, sex, ethnic group (3) essential features of the study method (4) basic findings (5) conclusions and implications or applications. An abstract for a literature review or meta-analysis should describe: (1) the problem or relations under investigation (2) study eligibility criteria (3) types of participants (4) main results, including the most important effect sizes, and any important moderators of these effect sizes (5) conclusions, including limitations (6) implications for theory, policy, and practice. An abstract for a theory-oriented paper should describe (1) how the theory or model works and the principles on which it is based and (2) what phenomena the theory or model accounts for and linkages to empirical results. An abstract for a methodological paper should describe (1) the general class of methods being discussed (2) the essential features of the proposed method (3) the range of application of the proposed method (4) in the case of statistical procedures, some of its essential features such as robustness or power efficiency. An abstract for a case study should describe (1) the subject and relevant characteristics of the individual, group, community, or organization presented (2) the nature of or solution to a problem illustrated by the case example (3) questions raised for additional research or theory.
- What is a Literature Review?
A literature review is a body of text that aims to review the critical points of current knowledge including substantive findings as well as theoretical and methodological contributions to a particular topic. Literature reviews are secondary sources, and as such, do not report any new or original experimental work.Most often associated with academic-oriented literature, such as a thesis, a literature review usually precedes a research proposal and results section. Its ultimate goal is to bring the reader up to date with current literature on a topic and forms the basis for another goal, such as future research that may be needed in the area.A well-structured literature review is characterized by a logical flow of ideas; current and relevant references with consistent, appropriate referencing style; proper use of terminology; and an unbiased and comprehensive view of the previous research on the topic. (Wikipedia)
Literature Review: An extensive search of the information available on a topic which results in a list of references to books, periodicals, and other materials on the topic. ( Online Library Learning Center Glossary )
"... a literature review uses as its database reports of primary or original scholarship, and does not report new primary scholarship itself. The primary reports used in the literature may be verbal, but in the vast majority of cases reports are written documents. The types of scholarship may be empirical, theoretical, critical/analytic, or methodological in nature. Second a literature review seeks to describe, summarize, evaluate, clarify and/or integrate the content of primary reports."
Cooper, H. M. (1988), "The structure of knowledge synthesis", Knowledge in Society , Vol. 1, pp. 104-126
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How do I Write a Literature Review?: Home
- Step #1: Choosing a Topic
- Step #2: Finding Information
- Step #3: Evaluating Content
- Step #4: Synthesizing Content
- #5 Writing the Review
- Citing Your Sources
Defined: Research Terms
Below is a brief list of different types of research terms. Clicking on the name will take you to an entry in Credo Reference Online defining the term and describing them-
- Boolean Operator (or Connector Terms)
- Proximity Operator
- Subject or Subject Entry
- Thesaurus Strategy
- Wild Card (Use when you want to search all at once for different forms of a word. Ex. "sculpt*" -this will perform a search for all occurrences of the following words: sculpture, sculpted, sculptor, sculptural, sculpting, sculpts, etc. instead of just "sculpt").
What is a literature review?
A literature review is NOT an academic research paper, an annotated bibliography, or a report on original research. Unlike an academic research paper, the main focus of a literature review is not to develop a new argument. A literature review is an overview of a topic that shows the reader what research has been done on that subject. A literature review may build on an annotated bibliography, but it does more than just summarize each article; a literature review should compare and contrast the ideas each article contains, highlight interesting trends and inconsistencies within the research, and suggest future research that is needed on the topic.
- A literature review is a summary and analysis of research published on a specific topic.
- Literature reviews give a "snapshot" of individual articles and explain how each work has contributed to the field's understanding of the topic.
- The purpose of a literature review is to trace the history of research on a particular subject, evaluate that research, and identify aspects of the topic that are in need of further study.
A good literature review shows signs of synthesis and understanding of the topic. There should be strong evidence of analytical thinking as illustrated through the connections you make between the literature being reviewed. Think of it this way- a literature review is much more than a book review. It is a document where you present your sources and their overall relationship to your thesis statement.
Conversely, a poor literature review will simply list and identify the sources . In essence, it will appear to be a glorified annotated bibliography.
Steps to developing a literature review:
- Choose a topic
- Search for relevant articles
- Read and evaluate the articles
- Synthesize the literature
- Summarize and discuss the articles in your writing
- Identify gaps in the current research on your topic
Writing the Review
After you've completed all steps, it's time to write about your findings. The actual review generally has 5 components:
This guide offers tips & "best practices" on how to perform & write a literature review. Click on a tab to learn more about a specific step in the literature review process, and, as always, if you have any questions, feel free to meet with a librarian . We are here to help you with your research!!
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Writing an Abstract for Your Research Paper
Definition and Purpose of Abstracts
An abstract is a short summary of your (published or unpublished) research paper, usually about a paragraph (c. 6-7 sentences, 150-250 words) long. A well-written abstract serves multiple purposes:
- an abstract lets readers get the gist or essence of your paper or article quickly, in order to decide whether to read the full paper;
- an abstract prepares readers to follow the detailed information, analyses, and arguments in your full paper;
- and, later, an abstract helps readers remember key points from your paper.
It’s also worth remembering that search engines and bibliographic databases use abstracts, as well as the title, to identify key terms for indexing your published paper. So what you include in your abstract and in your title are crucial for helping other researchers find your paper or article.
If you are writing an abstract for a course paper, your professor may give you specific guidelines for what to include and how to organize your abstract. Similarly, academic journals often have specific requirements for abstracts. So in addition to following the advice on this page, you should be sure to look for and follow any guidelines from the course or journal you’re writing for.
The Contents of an Abstract
Abstracts contain most of the following kinds of information in brief form. The body of your paper will, of course, develop and explain these ideas much more fully. As you will see in the samples below, the proportion of your abstract that you devote to each kind of information—and the sequence of that information—will vary, depending on the nature and genre of the paper that you are summarizing in your abstract. And in some cases, some of this information is implied, rather than stated explicitly. The Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association , which is widely used in the social sciences, gives specific guidelines for what to include in the abstract for different kinds of papers—for empirical studies, literature reviews or meta-analyses, theoretical papers, methodological papers, and case studies.
Here are the typical kinds of information found in most abstracts:
- the context or background information for your research; the general topic under study; the specific topic of your research
- the central questions or statement of the problem your research addresses
- what’s already known about this question, what previous research has done or shown
- the main reason(s) , the exigency, the rationale , the goals for your research—Why is it important to address these questions? Are you, for example, examining a new topic? Why is that topic worth examining? Are you filling a gap in previous research? Applying new methods to take a fresh look at existing ideas or data? Resolving a dispute within the literature in your field? . . .
- your research and/or analytical methods
- your main findings , results , or arguments
- the significance or implications of your findings or arguments.
Your abstract should be intelligible on its own, without a reader’s having to read your entire paper. And in an abstract, you usually do not cite references—most of your abstract will describe what you have studied in your research and what you have found and what you argue in your paper. In the body of your paper, you will cite the specific literature that informs your research.
When to Write Your Abstract
Although you might be tempted to write your abstract first because it will appear as the very first part of your paper, it’s a good idea to wait to write your abstract until after you’ve drafted your full paper, so that you know what you’re summarizing.
What follows are some sample abstracts in published papers or articles, all written by faculty at UW-Madison who come from a variety of disciplines. We have annotated these samples to help you see the work that these authors are doing within their abstracts.
Choosing Verb Tenses within Your Abstract
The social science sample (Sample 1) below uses the present tense to describe general facts and interpretations that have been and are currently true, including the prevailing explanation for the social phenomenon under study. That abstract also uses the present tense to describe the methods, the findings, the arguments, and the implications of the findings from their new research study. The authors use the past tense to describe previous research.
The humanities sample (Sample 2) below uses the past tense to describe completed events in the past (the texts created in the pulp fiction industry in the 1970s and 80s) and uses the present tense to describe what is happening in those texts, to explain the significance or meaning of those texts, and to describe the arguments presented in the article.
The science samples (Samples 3 and 4) below use the past tense to describe what previous research studies have done and the research the authors have conducted, the methods they have followed, and what they have found. In their rationale or justification for their research (what remains to be done), they use the present tense. They also use the present tense to introduce their study (in Sample 3, “Here we report . . .”) and to explain the significance of their study (In Sample 3, This reprogramming . . . “provides a scalable cell source for. . .”).
Sample Abstract 1
From the social sciences.
Reporting new findings about the reasons for increasing economic homogamy among spouses
Gonalons-Pons, Pilar, and Christine R. Schwartz. “Trends in Economic Homogamy: Changes in Assortative Mating or the Division of Labor in Marriage?” Demography , vol. 54, no. 3, 2017, pp. 985-1005.
Sample Abstract 2
From the humanities.
Analyzing underground pulp fiction publications in Tanzania, this article makes an argument about the cultural significance of those publications
Emily Callaci. “Street Textuality: Socialism, Masculinity, and Urban Belonging in Tanzania’s Pulp Fiction Publishing Industry, 1975-1985.” Comparative Studies in Society and History , vol. 59, no. 1, 2017, pp. 183-210.
Sample Abstract/Summary 3
From the sciences.
Reporting a new method for reprogramming adult mouse fibroblasts into induced cardiac progenitor cells
Lalit, Pratik A., Max R. Salick, Daryl O. Nelson, Jayne M. Squirrell, Christina M. Shafer, Neel G. Patel, Imaan Saeed, Eric G. Schmuck, Yogananda S. Markandeya, Rachel Wong, Martin R. Lea, Kevin W. Eliceiri, Timothy A. Hacker, Wendy C. Crone, Michael Kyba, Daniel J. Garry, Ron Stewart, James A. Thomson, Karen M. Downs, Gary E. Lyons, and Timothy J. Kamp. “Lineage Reprogramming of Fibroblasts into Proliferative Induced Cardiac Progenitor Cells by Defined Factors.” Cell Stem Cell , vol. 18, 2016, pp. 354-367.
Sample Abstract 4, a Structured Abstract
Reporting results about the effectiveness of antibiotic therapy in managing acute bacterial sinusitis, from a rigorously controlled study
Note: This journal requires authors to organize their abstract into four specific sections, with strict word limits. Because the headings for this structured abstract are self-explanatory, we have chosen not to add annotations to this sample abstract.
Wald, Ellen R., David Nash, and Jens Eickhoff. “Effectiveness of Amoxicillin/Clavulanate Potassium in the Treatment of Acute Bacterial Sinusitis in Children.” Pediatrics , vol. 124, no. 1, 2009, pp. 9-15.
“OBJECTIVE: The role of antibiotic therapy in managing acute bacterial sinusitis (ABS) in children is controversial. The purpose of this study was to determine the effectiveness of high-dose amoxicillin/potassium clavulanate in the treatment of children diagnosed with ABS.
METHODS : This was a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled study. Children 1 to 10 years of age with a clinical presentation compatible with ABS were eligible for participation. Patients were stratified according to age (<6 or ≥6 years) and clinical severity and randomly assigned to receive either amoxicillin (90 mg/kg) with potassium clavulanate (6.4 mg/kg) or placebo. A symptom survey was performed on days 0, 1, 2, 3, 5, 7, 10, 20, and 30. Patients were examined on day 14. Children’s conditions were rated as cured, improved, or failed according to scoring rules.
RESULTS: Two thousand one hundred thirty-five children with respiratory complaints were screened for enrollment; 139 (6.5%) had ABS. Fifty-eight patients were enrolled, and 56 were randomly assigned. The mean age was 6630 months. Fifty (89%) patients presented with persistent symptoms, and 6 (11%) presented with nonpersistent symptoms. In 24 (43%) children, the illness was classified as mild, whereas in the remaining 32 (57%) children it was severe. Of the 28 children who received the antibiotic, 14 (50%) were cured, 4 (14%) were improved, 4(14%) experienced treatment failure, and 6 (21%) withdrew. Of the 28children who received placebo, 4 (14%) were cured, 5 (18%) improved, and 19 (68%) experienced treatment failure. Children receiving the antibiotic were more likely to be cured (50% vs 14%) and less likely to have treatment failure (14% vs 68%) than children receiving the placebo.
CONCLUSIONS : ABS is a common complication of viral upper respiratory infections. Amoxicillin/potassium clavulanate results in significantly more cures and fewer failures than placebo, according to parental report of time to resolution.” (9)
Some Excellent Advice about Writing Abstracts for Basic Science Research Papers, by Professor Adriano Aguzzi from the Institute of Neuropathology at the University of Zurich:
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A well-composed abstract is key to the effective dissemination of your research. Many articles are only ever read in abstract form. Anonymous peer-reviewers of your scholarship will read the abstract first. The African Studies Review (ASR) provides abstracts in English, French, and Portuguese, in order to reach the widest possible global audience. You need to provide one 100-word version in at least one language.
The abstract is not the first paragraph of an article. An abstract is a complete version or form of your article. It is the entire article epitomized, covering the major points, content and scope of your argument, the theoretical framework or scholarly point of departure, as well as the methodology, and type of evidentiary basis. It should be able to stand alone.
The abstract can be described as the “elevator pitch” for a possible publication: imagine you’re stuck in the elevator at the ASA Annual Meeting with one of the editors of the ASR . You need to provide an overview that hits the high points in about one minute and convinces the editor that it’s worthy of further consideration. It should very concisely summarize the topic, how it fits into the broader literature, the contribution, the research strategy, the key findings, and the broader implications.
All ASR articles are available via multiple digital platforms, so your abstract must be searchable online. We suggest you engage the follow two prevailing ways to optimize your abstracts for search engines. This will greatly increase the chance it will viewed widely and shared.
First , construct a descriptive title for your article. In search engine terms, the title of each article abstract is crucial. The search engine assumes that the title contains the words most relevant to the article. This is why it is important to choose a descriptive, unambiguous, and accurate title. While it may be tempting to use a quote from an informant or sources, think about how search terms draw in a potential reader who may be looking for your article or your subject area, community, or country of study, and help them by constructing a title to include those terms. Remember that people search for key phrases, not just single words.
Second , reiterate key title phrases in the abstract. You should reiterate the key phrases in the article title within the abstract itself. Although search engines use proprietary algorithms, the number of times that certain words and phrases appear on a webpage has a significant impact in how they are ranked in searches.
Things You Should Do:
- Draft the abstract AFTER you have finished the article
- Construct a simple, descriptive and accurate title, containing all the important key terms and phrases that relate to the topic, theme, or argument
- Repeat key phrases and incorporate them smoothly - remember that the primary audience is a potential reader and not a search engine
- Use synonyms or related key phrases
- Provide a clear and concise summary of the content of the chapter
- Describe your methodology and/or data
- Write in the third-person present tense
- Review and revise the abstract before you submit your article for review
- Revise the abstract every time you revise your article
Things You Should Not Do:
- Write the abstract BEFORE the article
- Construct an ambiguous and elaborate title
- Provide general facts - be sure to focus on the core discussions/findings
- Write in the first person
- Forget to proof-read for typos
- Review the entire literature
- Write in the past or future tense
- Employ undefined abbreviations or acronyms
- Include citations or references
- Use overly technical language
- Use speculative phraseology
Example of a strong abstract:
“States at War: Confronting Conflict in Africa”
In the early 1990s, democratization dominated discourse on African politics. However fraught with contradictions, processes of political liberalization held out hope for more responsive, accountable government—and some African countries achieved impressive gains. But in many parts of the continent the outlook at the beginning of the twenty-first century is decidedly more somber. An increase in violence and war has had devastating consequences for people and their communities. Newbury examines several approaches to confronting these conflicts and highlights three lessons that emerge. In some situations, international involvement is essential to end a war, and doing this successfully requires enormous resources. But external assistance cannot follow a single template; it must be adapted to different local dynamics and coordinated with efforts of peace-builders within. Newbury argues that greater support is needed for efforts to alleviate the conditions that spawn wars and violence.
Example of a weak abstract:
“Conflict and Chaos: Understanding War, Rethinking Violence”
This article argues that in the early 1990s democratization dominated African political discourse. I explore the processes of political liberalization and how they were fraught with contradictions, although they held out hope for more responsive, accountable government. I identify some African countries that achieved impressive gains. But it has been argued by other scholars (Schmidt 2007; Jones 2005; Asante 1996) that the outlook at the beginning of the twenty-first century will be decidedly more somber. An increase in violence and war has had overdetermining ramifications broadly. I will examine several approaches to confronting these conflicts and I will highlight three lessons that emerge. In some situations, international involvement may be essential to end a war, and doing this successfully may require enormous resources. But external assistance cannot follow a single template; it must be adapted to different local dynamics and coordinated with efforts of peace-builders within. The author cites various data to argue that greater support is needed for efforts to alleviate the conditions that spawn wars and violence.
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- Bull Med Libr Assoc
- v.88(4); 2000 Oct
Clarifying the abstracts of systematic literature reviews *
1 Department of Psychology Keele University Staffordshire United Kingdom
2 † Author's address for correspondence: James Hartley, B.A., Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Keele University, Staffordshire, ST5 5BG, United Kingdom; email, [email protected]
Background: There is a small body of research on improving the clarity of abstracts in general that is relevant to improving the clarity of abstracts of systematic reviews.
Objectives: To summarize this earlier research and indicate its implications for writing the abstracts of systematic reviews.
Method: Literature review with commentary on three main features affecting the clarity of abstracts: their language, structure, and typographical presentation.
Conclusions: The abstracts of systematic reviews should be easier to read than the abstracts of medical research articles, as they are targeted at a wider audience. The aims, methods, results, and conclusions of systematic reviews need to be presented in a consistent way to help search and retrieval. The typographic detailing of the abstracts (type-sizes, spacing, and weights) should be planned to help, rather than confuse, the reader.
Several books and review papers have been published over the last twenty-five years about improving the clarity of the abstracts of articles in scientific journals, including several recent studies [ 1–5 ]. Three main areas of importance have been discussed:
- the language, or the readability, of an abstract;
- the sequence of information, or the structure, of an abstract; and
- the typography, or the presentation, of an abstract.
This paper considers the implications of the findings from research in each of these overlapping areas to the more specific area of writing abstracts for what are called “systematic reviews.” Such reviews in medical journals typically use standard procedures for assessing the evidence obtained from separate studies for and against the effectiveness of a particular treatment. The term “systematic” implies that the authors have used a standard approach to minimizing biases and random errors and that the methods chosen for the approach will be documented in the materials and methods sections of the review. Examples of such reviews may be found in Chalmers's and Altman's text [ 6 ] and in papers published in medical journals, particularly Evidence-Based Medicine. Figure 1 provides a fictitious example of an abstract for such a paper.
“Before” and “after” examples designed to show how differences in typography and wording can enhance the clarity of an abstract. Abstract courtesy of Philippa Middleton.
THE LANGUAGE OF THE TEXT
Research on the readability of conventional journal abstracts suggests that they are not easy to read. Studies in this area typically use the Flesch Reading Ease (R.E.) scores as their measure of text difficulty [ 7 ]. This measure, developed in the 1940s, is based upon the somewhat over simple idea that the difficulty of text is a function of the length of the sentences in the text and the length of the words within these sentences. The original Flesch formula is that R.E. = 206.835 − 0.846w − 1.015s (where w = the average number of syllables in 100 words and s = the average number of words per sentence). The scores normally range from 0 to 100, and the lower the score the more difficult the text is to read; Table 1 gives typical examples. Today, Flesch R.E. scores accompany most computerized spell checkers, and this removes the difficulties of hand calculation; although different programs give slightly different results [ 8, 9 ].
Table 1 The interpretation of Flesch scores
Table 2 summarizes the Flesch scores obtained for numerous journal abstracts in seven studies. The low scores shown here support the notion that journal abstracts are difficult to read. With medical journals, in particular, this difficulty may stem partly from complex medical terminology. Readability scores such as these are widely quoted, even though there is considerable debate about their validity, largely because they ignore the readers' prior knowledge and motivation [ 10, 11 ].
Table 2 Flesch Reading Ease scores reported in previous research on abstracts in journal articles
A second cause of difficulty in understanding text is that, although the wording may be simple and the sentences short, the concepts being described may not be understood by the reader. Thus, for example, although the sentence “God is grace” is extremely readable (in terms of the Flesch), it is not easy to explain what it actually means! In systematic reviews, to be more specific, the statistical concepts of the confidence interval and the adjusted odds ratio ( Figure 1 ) may be well understood by medical researchers, but they will not be understood by all readers.
A third cause of difficulty in prose lies in the scientific nature of the text that emphasizes the use of the third person, together with the passive rather than the active tense. Graetz writes of journal abstracts:
The abstract is characterized by the use of the past tense, the third person, passive, and the non-use of negatives…. It is written in tightly worded sentences, which avoid repetition, meaningless expressions, superlatives, adjectives, illustrations, preliminaries, descriptive details, examples, footnotes. In short it eliminates the redundancy which the skilled reader counts on finding in written language and which usually facilitates comprehension. [ 12 ]
In systematic reviews, it is easy to find sentences like “Trial eligibility and quality were assessed” that would be more readable if they were written as “We assessed the eligibility and the quality of the trials.” Furthermore, there are often short telegrammatic communications, some of which contain no verbs. Figure 1 provides an example (under the subheading “Selection criteria”).
There are, of course, numerous guidelines on how to write clear abstracts and more readable medical text [ 13–16 ] but, at present, there are few such guidelines for writing the abstracts of systematic reviews. Mulrow, Thacker, and Pugh [ 17 ] provide an excellent early example, and there are now regularly updated guidelines in the Cochrane Handbook [ 18 ].
Nonetheless, even when such guidelines are followed, evaluating the clarity of medical text is not easy. But some methods of doing so may be adapted from the more traditional literature on text evaluation. Schriver, for example, describes three different methods of text evaluation—text-based, expert-based, and reader-based methods [ 19 ]:
- Text-based methods are ones that can be used without recourse to experts or to readers. Such methods include computer-based readability formulae (such as the Flesch measure described above) and computer-based measures of style and grammar.
- Expert-based methods are ones that use experts to make assessments of the effectiveness of a piece of text. Medical experts may be asked, for example, to judge the suitability of the information contained in a patient information leaflet.
- Reader-based methods are ones that involve actual readers in making assessments of the suitability of the text, for themselves and for others. Patients, for example, may be asked to comment on medical leaflets or be tested on how much they can recall from them.
Although all three methods of evaluation are useful, especially in combination, this writer particularly recommends reader-based methods for evaluating the readability of abstracts in systematic reviews. This recommendation is because the readers of such systematic reviews are likely to be quite disparate in their aims, needs, and even in the languages that they speak. As the 1999 Cochrane Handbook put it:
Abstracts should be made as readable as possible without compromising scientific integrity. They should primarily be targeted to health care decision makers (clinicians, consumers, and policy makers) rather than just researchers. Terminology should be reasonably comprehensible to a general rather than a specialist medical audience [emphasis added]. [ 20 ]
Expert-based measures on their own may be misleading. For instance, there is evidence to suggest that the concerns of professionals are different from those of other personnel [ 21 ]. Wilson et al. [ 22 ], for instance, report wide differences between the responses of general practitioners (GPs) and patients in the United Kingdom in responses to questions concerning the content and usefulness of several patient information leaflets. Table 3 shows some of their replies.
Table 3 Differences between general practitioners (GPs) and patients in their views about particular patient information leaflets
THE STRUCTURE OF THE TEXT
In recent times, particularly in the medical field, there has been great interest in the use of so-called “structured abstracts”—abstracts that typically contain subheadings, such as “background,” “aims,” “methods,” “results,” and “conclusions.” Indeed, the early rise in the use of such abstracts was phenomenal [ 23 ], and it has no doubt continued to be so up to the present day. Evaluation studies have shown that structured abstracts are more effective than traditional ones, particularly in the sense that they contain more information [ 24–31 ]. However, a caveat here is that some authors still omit important information, and some still include information in the abstract that does not match exactly what is said in the article [ 32–35 ].
Additional research has shown that structured abstracts are sometimes easier to read and to search than are traditional ones [ 36, 37 ], but others have questioned this conclusion [ 38, 39 ]. Nonetheless, in general, both authors and readers apparently prefer structured to traditional abstracts [ 40–42 ]. The main features of structured abstracts that lead to these findings are that:
- the texts are opened-up and clearly subdivided into their component parts, which helps the reader perceive their structure;
- the abstracts sequence their information in a consistent order under consistent subheadings, which facilitates search and retrieval; and
- the writing under these subheadings ensures that authors do not miss out anything important.
Nonetheless, there are some difficulties—and these difficulties become more apparent after considering the structured abstracts of systematic reviews. First of all, the typographic practice of denoting the subheadings varies from journal to journal [ 43, 44 ]. Second, and of more relevance here, there is a range of subheadings used both within and among journals [ 45, 46 ], which militates against rapid retrieval. Table 4 shows an example of these variations by listing the subheadings used in the abstracts in just one volume of the Journal of the American Medical Association. Finally, it appears that some authors omit important subheadings or present them in a different order (e.g., reporting the conclusions before the results) [ 47 ].
Table 4 Different numbers of subheadings used in abstracts in the same volume of the Journal of the American Medical Association
The implications of these difficulties are that a decision needs to be made, based upon appropriate evaluation studies, about what are the key subheadings that can be used consistently in systematic reviews. The journal Evidence-Based Medicine, for example, uses the following six subheadings: “Question(s),” “Data sources,” “Study selection,” “Data extraction,” “Main results,” and “Conclusions,” but the Cochrane Handbook [ 48 ] recommends another seven: “Background,” “Objectives,” “Search strategy,” “Selection criteria,” “Data collection and analysis,” “Main results,” and “Reviewers' conclusions.” Presumably, these different sets of subheadings have developed over time with experience. For example, “Objective(s)” initially preceded “Question(s)” in Evidence-Based Medicine. In the future, refining these subheadings further may be possible by using appropriate typographic cueing, to separate important from minor subheadings, such as those headings used in the Journal of the American Medical Association. It will be essential, however, to use consistent terminology throughout the literature to aid both the creation of and retrieval from the abstracts of systematic reviews. Editors may consult their readers and their authors for possible solutions to this problem.
THE TYPOGRAPHIC SETTING FOR ABSTRACTS OF SYSTEMATIC REVIEWS
Early research on the typographic setting of structured abstracts in scientific articles suggests that the subheadings should be printed in bold capital letters with a line space above each subheading [ 49 ]. But this research has been done with structured abstracts that only have four subheadings. However, the abstracts of systematic reviews are likely to have more than four-subheadings—indeed, as noted above, six or seven seem typical. Also, some of these subheadings may be more important than others.
Generally speaking, there are two ways of clarifying the structure in typography. One is to vary the typography, the other to vary the spacing [ 50, 51 ]. In terms of typography, not overdoing is best; there is no need to use two cues when one will do. Thus, it may be appropriate to use bold lettering for the main subheadings and italic lettering for the less important ones, without adding the additional cues of capital letters or underlining. Also, as the subheadings appear as the first word on a line, placing a line space above them enhances their effectiveness, so there is no need to indent the subheadings as well. The abstracts published in the Cochrane Library follow this procedure.
Finally in this section, it should be noted that it is easier to read an abstract:
- that is set in the same type-size (or larger) than the body of the text of the review, unlike many journal abstracts, [ 52 ];
- that does not use “fancy'” typography or indeed bold or italic for its substantive text [ 53 ]; and
- that is set in “unjustified text,” with equal word spacing and a ragged right-hand margin, rather than in “justified text,” with unequal word spacing and straight left- and right-hand margins. This is particularly the case if the abstract is being read on screen [ 54 ].
The research reviewed above suggests that, in presenting the abstracts to systematic reviews, attention needs to be paid to their language, their structure, and their typographic design. Figure 1 shows a “before and after” example for a fictitious abstract for a systematic review. The purpose of this example is to encapsulate the argument of this paper and to show how changes in wording and typography can enhance the clarity of an abstract for a systematic review.
The author is indebted to Iain Chalmers, Philippa Middleton, Mark Starr, and anonymous referees for assistance in the preparation of this paper.
* Based on invited presentation at the VIIth Cochrane Colloquium, Rome, Italy, October 1999.
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11.8 Writing an abstract
All full reviews must include an abstract of not more than 400 words. The abstract should be kept as brief as possible without sacrificing important content. Abstracts to Cochrane reviews are published in MEDLINE and the Science Citation Index, and are made freely available on the internet. It is therefore important that they can be read as stand-alone documents.
The abstract should summarize the key methods, results and conclusions of the review and should not contain any information that is not in the review. Links to other parts of the review (such as references, studies, tables and figures) may not be included in the abstract. A hypothetical example of an abstract is included in Box 11.8.a .
Abstracts should be targeted primarily at healthcare decision makers (clinicians, informed consumers and policy makers) rather than just to researchers. Terminology should be reasonably comprehensible to a general rather than a specialist healthcare audience. Abbreviations should be avoided, except where they are widely understood (for example, HIV). Where essential, other abbreviations should be spelt out (with the abbreviations in brackets) on first use. Names of drugs and interventions that can be understood internationally should be used wherever possible. Trade names should not be used.
The content under each heading in the abstract should be as follows:
Background: This should be one or two sentences to explain the context or elaborate on the purpose and rationale of the review. If this version of the review is an update of an earlier one, it is helpful to include a sentence such as “This is an update of a Cochrane review first published in YEAR, and previously updated in YEAR”.
Objectives: This should be a precise statement of the primary objective of the review, ideally in a single sentence, matching the Objectives in the main text of the review. Where possible the style should be of the form “To assess the effects of [intervention or comparison] for [health problem] for/in [types of people, disease or problem and setting if specified]”.
Search methods: This should list the sources and the dates of the last search, for each source, using the active form ‘We searched….’ or, if there is only one author, the passive form can be used, for example, ‘Database X, Y, Z were searched’. Search terms should not be listed here. If the CRG’s Specialized Register was used, this should be listed first in the form ‘Cochrane X Group Specialized Register’. The order for listing other databases should be the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, MEDLINE, EMBASE, other databases. The date range of the search for each database should be given. For the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials this should be in the form ‘Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials ( The Cochrane Library 2007, Issue 1)’. For most other databases, such as MEDLINE, it should be in the form ‘MEDLINE (January 1966 to December 2006)’. Searching of bibliographies for relevant citations can be covered in a generic phrase ‘reference lists of articles’. If there were any constraints based on language or publication status, these should be listed. If individuals or organizations were contacted to locate studies this should be noted and it is preferable to use ‘We contacted pharmaceutical companies’ rather than a listing of all the pharmaceutical companies contacted. If journals were specifically handsearched for the review, this should be noted but handsearching to help build the Specialized Register of the CRG should not be listed.
Selection criteria: These should be given as ‘ [type of study] of [type of intervention or comparison] in [disease, problem or type of people]‘ . Outcomes should only be listed here if the review was restricted to specific outcomes.
Data collection and analysis: This should be restricted to how data were extracted and assessed, and not include details of what data were extracted. This section should cover whether data extraction and assessments of risk of bias were done by more than one person. If the authors contacted investigators to obtain missing information, this should be noted here. What steps, if any, were taken to identify adverse effects should be noted.
Main results: This section should begin with the total number of studies and participants included in the review, and brief details pertinent to the interpretation of the results (for example, the risk of bias in the studies overall or a comment on the comparability of the studies, if appropriate). It should address the primary objective and be restricted to the main qualitative and quantitative results (generally including not more than six key results). The outcomes included should be selected on the basis of which are most likely to help someone making a decision about whether or not to use a particular intervention. Adverse effects should be included if these are covered in the review. If necessary, the number of studies and participants contributing to the separate outcomes should be noted, along with concerns over quality of evidence specific to these outcomes. The results should be expressed narratively as well as quantitatively if the numerical results are not clear or intuitive (such as those from a standardized mean differences analysis). The summary statistics in the abstract should be the same as those selected as the defaults for the review, and should be presented in a standard way, such as ‘odds ratio 2.31 (95% confidence interval 1.13 to 3.45)’. Ideally, risks of events (percentage) or averages (for continuous data) should be reported for both comparison groups. If overall results are not calculated in the review, a qualitative assessment or a description of the range and pattern of the results can be given. However, ‘vote counts’ in which the numbers of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ studies are reported should be avoided.
Authors’ conclusions: The primary purpose of the review should be to present information, rather than to offer advice or recommendations. The Authors’ conclusions should be succinct and drawn directly from the findings of the review so that they directly and obviously reflect the main results. Assumptions should generally not be made about practice circumstances, values, preferences, tradeoffs; and the giving of advice or recommendations should generally be avoided. Any important limitations of data and analyses should be noted. Important conclusions about the implications for research should be included if these are not obvious.
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- How to Write an Abstract | Steps & Examples
How to Write an Abstract | Steps & Examples
Published on February 28, 2019 by Shona McCombes . Revised on November 11, 2022 by Eoghan Ryan.
An abstract is a short summary of a longer work (such as a thesis , dissertation or research paper ). The abstract concisely reports the aims and outcomes of your research, so that readers know exactly what your paper is about.
Although the structure may vary slightly depending on your discipline, your abstract should describe the purpose of your work, the methods you’ve used, and the conclusions you’ve drawn.
One common way to structure your abstract is to use the IMRaD structure. This stands for:
Abstracts are usually around 100–300 words, but there’s often a strict word limit, so make sure to check the relevant requirements.
In a dissertation or thesis , include the abstract on a separate page, after the title page and acknowledgements but before the table of contents .
Table of contents
Abstract example, when to write an abstract, step 1: introduction, step 2: methods, step 3: results, step 4: discussion, tips for writing an abstract, frequently asked questions about abstracts.
Hover over the different parts of the abstract to see how it is constructed.
This paper examines the role of silent movies as a mode of shared experience in the US during the early twentieth century. At this time, high immigration rates resulted in a significant percentage of non-English-speaking citizens. These immigrants faced numerous economic and social obstacles, including exclusion from public entertainment and modes of discourse (newspapers, theater, radio).
Incorporating evidence from reviews, personal correspondence, and diaries, this study demonstrates that silent films were an affordable and inclusive source of entertainment. It argues for the accessible economic and representational nature of early cinema. These concerns are particularly evident in the low price of admission and in the democratic nature of the actors’ exaggerated gestures, which allowed the plots and action to be easily grasped by a diverse audience despite language barriers.
Keywords: silent movies, immigration, public discourse, entertainment, early cinema, language barriers.
You will almost always have to include an abstract when:
- Completing a thesis or dissertation
- Submitting a research paper to an academic journal
- Writing a book or research proposal
- Applying for research grants
It’s easiest to write your abstract last, right before the proofreading stage, because it’s a summary of the work you’ve already done. Your abstract should:
- Be a self-contained text, not an excerpt from your paper
- Be fully understandable on its own
- Reflect the structure of your larger work
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Start by clearly defining the purpose of your research. What practical or theoretical problem does the research respond to, or what research question did you aim to answer?
You can include some brief context on the social or academic relevance of your dissertation topic , but don’t go into detailed background information. If your abstract uses specialized terms that would be unfamiliar to the average academic reader or that have various different meanings, give a concise definition.
After identifying the problem, state the objective of your research. Use verbs like “investigate,” “test,” “analyze,” or “evaluate” to describe exactly what you set out to do.
This part of the abstract can be written in the present or past simple tense but should never refer to the future, as the research is already complete.
- This study will investigate the relationship between coffee consumption and productivity.
- This study investigates the relationship between coffee consumption and productivity.
Next, indicate the research methods that you used to answer your question. This part should be a straightforward description of what you did in one or two sentences. It is usually written in the past simple tense, as it refers to completed actions.
- Structured interviews will be conducted with 25 participants.
- Structured interviews were conducted with 25 participants.
Don’t evaluate validity or obstacles here — the goal is not to give an account of the methodology’s strengths and weaknesses, but to give the reader a quick insight into the overall approach and procedures you used.
Next, summarize the main research results . This part of the abstract can be in the present or past simple tense.
- Our analysis has shown a strong correlation between coffee consumption and productivity.
- Our analysis shows a strong correlation between coffee consumption and productivity.
- Our analysis showed a strong correlation between coffee consumption and productivity.
Depending on how long and complex your research is, you may not be able to include all results here. Try to highlight only the most important findings that will allow the reader to understand your conclusions.
Finally, you should discuss the main conclusions of your research : what is your answer to the problem or question? The reader should finish with a clear understanding of the central point that your research has proved or argued. Conclusions are usually written in the present simple tense.
- We concluded that coffee consumption increases productivity.
- We conclude that coffee consumption increases productivity.
If there are important limitations to your research (for example, related to your sample size or methods), you should mention them briefly in the abstract. This allows the reader to accurately assess the credibility and generalizability of your research.
If your aim was to solve a practical problem, your discussion might include recommendations for implementation. If relevant, you can briefly make suggestions for further research.
If your paper will be published, you might have to add a list of keywords at the end of the abstract. These keywords should reference the most important elements of the research to help potential readers find your paper during their own literature searches.
Be aware that some publication manuals, such as APA Style , have specific formatting requirements for these keywords.
It can be a real challenge to condense your whole work into just a couple of hundred words, but the abstract will be the first (and sometimes only) part that people read, so it’s important to get it right. These strategies can help you get started.
Read other abstracts
The best way to learn the conventions of writing an abstract in your discipline is to read other people’s. You probably already read lots of journal article abstracts while conducting your literature review —try using them as a framework for structure and style.
You can also find lots of dissertation abstract examples in thesis and dissertation databases .
Not all abstracts will contain precisely the same elements. For longer works, you can write your abstract through a process of reverse outlining.
For each chapter or section, list keywords and draft one to two sentences that summarize the central point or argument. This will give you a framework of your abstract’s structure. Next, revise the sentences to make connections and show how the argument develops.
Write clearly and concisely
A good abstract is short but impactful, so make sure every word counts. Each sentence should clearly communicate one main point.
To keep your abstract or summary short and clear:
- Avoid passive sentences: Passive constructions are often unnecessarily long. You can easily make them shorter and clearer by using the active voice.
- Avoid long sentences: Substitute longer expressions for concise expressions or single words (e.g., “In order to” for “To”).
- Avoid obscure jargon: The abstract should be understandable to readers who are not familiar with your topic.
- Avoid repetition and filler words: Replace nouns with pronouns when possible and eliminate unnecessary words.
- Avoid detailed descriptions: An abstract is not expected to provide detailed definitions, background information, or discussions of other scholars’ work. Instead, include this information in the body of your thesis or paper.
If you’re struggling to edit down to the required length, you can get help from expert editors with Scribbr’s professional proofreading services .
Check your formatting
If you are writing a thesis or dissertation or submitting to a journal, there are often specific formatting requirements for the abstract—make sure to check the guidelines and format your work correctly. For APA research papers you can follow the APA abstract format .
The word count is within the required length, or a maximum of one page.
The abstract appears after the title page and acknowledgements and before the table of contents .
I have clearly stated my research problem and objectives.
I have briefly described my methodology .
I have summarized the most important results .
I have stated my main conclusions .
I have mentioned any important limitations and recommendations.
The abstract can be understood by someone without prior knowledge of the topic.
You've written a great abstract! Use the other checklists to continue improving your thesis or dissertation.
An abstract is a concise summary of an academic text (such as a journal article or dissertation ). It serves two main purposes:
- To help potential readers determine the relevance of your paper for their own research.
- To communicate your key findings to those who don’t have time to read the whole paper.
Abstracts are often indexed along with keywords on academic databases, so they make your work more easily findable. Since the abstract is the first thing any reader sees, it’s important that it clearly and accurately summarizes the contents of your paper.
An abstract for a thesis or dissertation is usually around 200–300 words. There’s often a strict word limit, so make sure to check your university’s requirements.
The abstract is the very last thing you write. You should only write it after your research is complete, so that you can accurately summarize the entirety of your thesis , dissertation or research paper .
Avoid citing sources in your abstract . There are two reasons for this:
- The abstract should focus on your original research, not on the work of others.
- The abstract should be self-contained and fully understandable without reference to other sources.
There are some circumstances where you might need to mention other sources in an abstract: for example, if your research responds directly to another study or focuses on the work of a single theorist. In general, though, don’t include citations unless absolutely necessary.
The abstract appears on its own page in the thesis or dissertation , after the title page and acknowledgements but before the table of contents .
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