What makes a good scientific abstract?

Scientific abstracts are one of the most critical pieces of writing in academia. Scientists must write abstracts for their doctoral dissertations, conferences, and articles. Moreover, the abstract of a paper is the first (and often only) thing that people read of our work. It creates a first impression of the research and, if it is well written, it will prompt people to read the whole paper or attend the talk. This post is for scientists of all levels (from bachelor students to professors) who wish to interest others in their research and publish in high-ranked journals. Here, you’ll learn the nine most essential features of an excellent abstract. To learn more about the other sections of a scientific paper, see my previous posts on the introduction, the methods section, the result section, and the discussion.

1. A good scientific abstract tells a story

The abstract is to a scientific research what the trailer is to a movie: A snapshot of the story. It’s the kind of trailer that tells you the story from A to Z. For a film, this kind of trailer can be annoying because it removes the suspense. But in science, it is necessary to give readers the information they need to know if the research is relevant to them.

Storytelling is a buzzword in science, but most scientists don’t know what a story is. Yet it’s easy as pie.

Whether in Hollywood movies or Nature Neuroscience, all stories are composed of 5 elements:

  • An opening that introduces the character and the setting: In a scientific story, the character is the research topic (e.g., a protein, a disease, a chemical, a reaction, a gene, a psychological function), and the setting the scientific knowledge about that topic.
  • A challenge that creates tension in the reader: A scientific challenge is the problem that the research intends to solve.
  • An action to solve this challenge: The action of a research is the study or experiment scientists conduct.
  • A climax, which ends the action in an exciting way: To the researcher, the climax is the result of the study.
  • A resolution, which concludes and ends the story.
Scientific abstracts starts with an opening, then address a challenge, describe the actions and climax of the research before concluding.

Write a few sentences for each of these elements, and you have your abstract. It’s that simple! To learn more about storytelling in science, see my Ultimate Guide to Scientific Writing.

2. A good scientific abstract is written in the appropriate tenses

Each element of the story should be told in a specific tense, namely:

  • Present tense for the opening and challenge (i.e., introductory sentences)
  • Past tense for the action and climax (i.e., description of methods and results)
  • Present or future tense for the resolution (i.e., concluding sentences)
Example of the usage of tenses in a cientific abstract: Breast cancer is the first cause of mortality is women. Current chemotherapy treatments show high efficiency, however they also trigger unpleasant side effect that lead patients to quit before treatment completion. In the present study, we investigated the effect of a new molecule. We tested the new treatment in a group of breast cancer female patient (N = 123) and assessed its efficacy in comparison to a control group (N = 129)... Patients having received the new treatment displayed less side effects and pursued the chemotherapy longer than the control patients…
These results demonstrate that our new molecule has fewer side effects and therefore leads to better adherence to treatment than conventional chemotherapies. The larger clinical trials we plan to start in the near future will indicate whether the compound is safe and efficacious enough to be commercialized.

3. A good scientific abstract contains the main keywords

Researchers and professionals in your area will look for papers in databases by entering specific keywords. If these keywords are present in your abstract, the chances that they will find your article are higher. Therefore, before writing your abstract, identify the most important keywords and make sure to include them in your abstract.

4. A good abstract respects the word limitations given by the guidelines

Scientific abstracts are always subject to a word or character limit provided by the journal (or conference) guidelines, usually between 150 and 250 words. This limitation can be frustrating. It is challenging to summarize years of work in a few sentences. Moreover, you may already have a longer abstract and no interest in spending time shortening it. In any case, you must respect the word count. Most journals and conferences require that you paste your abstract into a box on the website, which counts characters. So, to avoid last-minute stress, it’s best to follow the guidelines from the start.

Important point!!! In order to meet the length requirements, many scientists sacrifice one of the story elements. Usually, they skip the introduction (character and challenge) and the conclusion (resolution) to have more room for the methods and results. Please don’t do this: Cutting out your story weakens your message. A trailer that only shows the action scenes and fails to introduce the main protagonist won’t hook the audience. If you must be concise, keep one sentence for each element and focus on the most important results. No one expects you to be exhaustive in an abstract.

5. A good scientific abstract doesn’t entail any cliché

Many abstracts contain standard phrases, such as:

  • “X is one of the most central mechanisms.”
  • “The implications of this research are discussed.”
  • “These results have clinical applications for the field.”

These clichés do not provide relevant information to readers; they waste their time and your word count. So, delete them and replace them with precise statements describing what makes X important or what are the implications or applications of your research.

6. A good abstract focuses on the most central results

A terrible sin that sometimes occurs in scientific abstracts is that authors focus on results peripheral to the research. This can happen when the study results do not validate the main hypotheses, but some other effect, not necessarily expected, turns out to be significant. Authors may then try to “sell their study” by focusing on the significant results and omitting those that are not. In general, this strategy does not work.

An experiment designed to test one hypothesis is rarely suitable for testing another. If you try to change your story after the fact, your readers will be able to tell that you are trying to hide something, or they will be confused because some elements of your design do not make sense. This is bad research practice, and a reviewer may reject your paper for that.

Be honest. Focus on your most central findings and what you learned from them. If you have reviewed the literature correctly before creating your study and if your methods are sound, your results ARE interesting, even if they are not what you expected.

7. A good abstract entails no (or few) abbreviations

In general, you should keep the abbreviations you use in your abstract (and in your paper) to a minimum. Abbreviations are quite indigestible and put off readers who are not specialists in the subject. But there are some exceptions.

In some cases, using an abbreviation in a scientific abstract is fine. For example, some terms, such as certain methods (e.g., fMRI) or molecules (e.g., DNA) have to be abbreviated because that’s how we know them. If everybody knows what they mean you may not even have to define them. If a long term is used several times in an abstract, it may also be a good idea to abbreviate it. You then define it the first time and use the abbreviation for subsequent repetitions. [Remember that you will have to define it again in the main article; the definition in the abstract is not enough.]

In any case, check the journal guidelines before you finalize your abstracts. Many of them have instructions regarding abbreviations.

8. A good abstract can reuse some of the article sentences

Often, young researchers think they have to write original sentences in their abstracts and go to great lengths to rephrase ideas that they have already formulated in other sections of their paper. I don’t think that it is necessary. I have never read a guideline that says the abstract must contain only novel sentences, and I know prominent researchers who copy and paste sentences of their article in the abstract. So, if it’s easier for you, I would say: Go for it!

Reusing sentences from your paper in your abstract is not plagiarism, and usually, no one notices unless you repeat the first sentence of the introduction (and I would advise against doing that).

9. A good scientific abstract is well written

Don’t hesitate to polish the style of your abstract. Most readers will start your article by reading its abstract, so it needs to make a good impression. How can you do this?

– Start by removing all words that don’t add meaning, such as unnecessary adjectives and adverbs,

Rephrase passive sentences into active ones,

Add conjunctions,

Make sure that a lay audience understands it (this advice is especially relevant if you intend to publish your paper in a generalist journal).

Applying these four actions to the whole paper is a lot of work, but it only takes a few minutes for an abstract. And it’s the best way to learn and make these rules your own. See here for more style tips.

In sum

In this post, you learned nine features that characterize good abstracts. But this information is only helpful if you put it into practice. So, pick the most relevant abstract to you right now and see if it conforms to each of these rules, one after the other. If it doesn’t, then revise it. You’ll see your abstract improve at each step. Good luck!

How to write your introduction + template

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Writing a good introduction is essential to getting your paper published in a top journal and captivating your readers. It’s essential… and challenging! With this template for writing your introduction, you will find:

  • Pre-writing instructions
  • Writing instructions
  • Explanations on how to use the template
  • A checklist to make sure you have included all the important elements for your introduction.
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