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How to Write a Research Paper Abstract
A short tutorial on writing student research paper abstracts, which are capsule descriptions, thesis summaries, typically about 200-350 words in length.
by Katharine Hansen, Ph.D.
Just what is an abstract? It's a summary of the major points of your paper all squeezed into one paragraph. Yes, it's OK if it's a long paragraph. In a sense, the abstract is an outline in paragraph form. It's simply a lot broader and more general than an outline, and it may not cover every point that an outline would.
An abstract is a capsule description of a written work, which may range from 100 to 1,000 words (but usually about 200-350 words). An abstract should provide concise description of the work that would enable anyone reading your abstract to grasp the main idea and usefulness of the work.
One important mission an abstract accomplishes is to describe your purpose for writing the paper (other than the fact that it's a class requirement); in other words, it states your thesis, the problem your paper will explore, or the question your paper will attempt to answer. You may also wish to touch upon the approach you will take to your exploration and the methodology of your research. Once you've articulated that purpose, you will have gone a long way toward launching your paper.
A sample abstract appears below, and another one, actually submitted by one of my students (he got a grade of 100) follows. In addition, the wonderful thing about abstracts is that gazillions of examples of them are available in the campus library, both electronically and in print. Any library database search -- such as ABI, PsycArticles (Psychology), ERIC (Education), and SocIndex (sociology) -- will produce endless examples of abstracts. If you have any doubt about where to locate examples of abstracts, just ask a reference librarian. In the meantime, two examples follow. Note how the abstracts describe the writers' purposes and how they plan to approach their papers:
In her unfinished novella, Diana and Persis, Louisa May Alcott, according Whitney Chadwick, "explores the connections between art, politics, spinsterhood, and the female community in late 19th-century Paris" (212). The character, Persis represents Alcott's sister May, whom Alcott supported as an artist in Paris beginning in 1873 -- at the same time Berthe Morisot, Mary Cassatt, and other women artists were making their mark in the Impressionist movement. Both characters, like real women artists in this milieu, are essentially faced with a choice between their art and domesticity -- marriage and motherhood. Using the novella, originally written in 1879 but first published in 1978, as a framework, this paper will explore how the lives of the real women artists of the period, particularly the Morisot sisters, aligned with Alcott's depiction. Because she based the story on May and herself, Alcott abandoned it when her sister died a month after giving birth to her only child, a daughter, named after Louisa. The paper will examine the question of whether the ending that one scholar believes Alcott intended is plausible in the context of the lives of real women artists in late 19th-century Paris.
An abstract may be closely related to the opening paragraph of your finished paper, which contains your thesis sentence. In other words, you can frequently use the same abstract as the introduction to your paper.
The implementation and/or de-emphasis of dress codes in the workplace communicates various attributes about a firm's corporate culture and organizational philosophies. The use of codes can positively or negatively influence the operations and image of a firm. Codes can be formal, (outlined and enforced by an employee code of conduct) or informal (those that are not written but "understood." A large component of a code's success rests with a firm's corporate culture and its management.
In demonstrating the significance of dress codes, this paper will analyze management's decision-making process and its impact upon the business. The initial step in investigating dress codes is the determination of management's motivating factors and the procedures necessary to effectively implement a code. The next step is to analyze the code and its influence on the organization. This part of the analysis includes determining the effectiveness of the code in accomplishing the organization's goals and objectives. Finally, this paper will assess the importance of dress codes in various industries and careers and what they communicate to fellow employees and external entities.
Questions about some of the terminology used in this article? Get more information (definitions and links) on key academic terms by going to our College Success Glossary.
Katharine Hansen, Ph.D., is an educator, author, and blogger who provides content for EmpoweringSites.com, including MyCollegeSuccessStory.com. Katharine, who earned her PhD in organizational behavior from Union Institute & University, Cincinnati, OH, is author of Dynamic Cover Letters for New Graduates and A Foot in the Door: Networking Your Way into the Hidden Job Market (both published by Ten Speed Press), as well as Top Notch Executive Resumes (Career Press); and with Randall S. Hansen, Ph.D., Dynamic Cover Letters, Write Your Way to a Higher GPA (Ten Speed), and The Complete Idiot's Guide to Study Skills (Alpha). She curates, crafts, and delivers compelling content online, in print, on stage, and in the classroom. Visit her personal Website KatharineHansenPhD.com or reach her by e-mail at kathy(at)astoriedcareer.com. Check out Dr. Hansen on GooglePlus.
I. Types of Abstracts
To begin, you need to determine which type of abstract you should include with your paper. There are four general types.
A critical abstract provides, in addition to describing main findings and information, a judgement or comment about the study’s validity, reliability, or completeness. The researcher evaluates the paper and often compares it with other works on the same subject. Critical abstracts are generally 400-500 words in length due to the additional interpretive commentary. These types of abstracts are used infrequently.
A descriptive abstract indicates the type of information found in the work. It makes no judgments about the work, nor does it provide results or conclusions of the research. It does incorporate key words found in the text and may include the purpose, methods, and scope of the research. Essentially, the descriptive abstract only describes the work being summarized. Some researchers consider it an outline of the work, rather than a summary. Descriptive abstracts are usually very short, 100 words or less.
The majority of abstracts are informative. While they still do not critique or evaluate a work, they do more than describe it. A good informative abstract acts as a surrogate for the work itself. That is, the researcher presents and explains all the main arguments and the important results and evidence in the paper. An informative abstract includes the information that can be found in a descriptive abstract [purpose, methods, scope] but it also includes the results and conclusions of the research and the recommendations of the author. The length varies according to discipline, but an informative abstract is usually no more than 300 words in length.
A highlight abstract is specifcally written to attract the reader’s attention to the study. No pretence is made of there being either a balanced or complete picture of the paper and, in fact, incomplete and leading remarks may be used to spark the reader’s interest. In that a highlight abstract cannot stand independent of its associated article, it is not a true abstract and, therefore, rarely used in academic writing.
II. Writing Style
Use the active voice when possible, but note that much of your abstract may require passive sentence constructions. Regardless, write your abstract using concise, but complete, sentences. Get to the point quickly and always use the past tense because you are reporting on research that has been completed.
Although it is the first section of your paper, the abstract, by definition, should be written last since it will summarize the contents of your entire paper. To begin composing your abstract, take whole sentences or key phrases from each section and put them in a sequence that summarizes the paper. Then revise or add connecting phrases or words to make it cohensive and clear. Before handing in your final paper, check to make sure that the information in the abstract completely agrees with what your have written in the paper.
The abstract SHOULD NOT contain:
- Lengthy background information,
- References to other literature [say something like, "current research shows that..." or "studies have indicated..."],
- Using ellipticals [i.e., ending with "..."] or incomplete sentences,
- Abbreviations, jargon, or terms that may be confusing to the reader, and
- Any sort of image, illustration, figure, or table, or references to them.
Abstract. Writing Center. University of Kansas; Abstract. The Structure, Format, Content, and Style of a Journal-Style Scientific Paper. Department of Biology. Bates College; Abstracts. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Borko, Harold and Seymour Chatman. "Criteria for Acceptable Abstracts: A Survey of Abstracters' Instructions." American Documentation 14 (April 1963): 149-160; Abstracts. The Writer’s Handbook. Writing Center. University of Wisconsin, Madison; Hartley, James and Lucy Betts. "Common Weaknesses in Traditional Abstracts in hte Social Sciences." Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 60 (October 2009): 2010-2018; Procter, Margaret. The Abstract. University College Writing Centre. University of Toronto; Writing Report Abstracts. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Writing Abstracts. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University; Koltay, Tibor. Abstracts and Abstracting: A Genre and Set of Skills for the Twenty-First Century. Oxford, UK: 2010