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How to Write a Scientific Abstract

Posted by Nabeel Ali

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Scientific research is an incredible force pushing our understanding of the natural world forward.  Communicating results and ideas is of utmost importance, and in science, there are standardized ways of doing so. Publication in peer-reviewed academic journals and poster presentation at scientific meetings are among them. At the crux of scientific communication is the abstract.  A scientific abstract summarizes your research in such a way that others can understand it and determine if it is of relevance to them.  Having a solid abstract is crucial. Here’s some tips on how to write one:

  • Write your abstract last

The abstract is a summary, write it last. This will help you organize your thoughts in the poster / paper first, and then extract the most relevant information last.

  • Tell others why they should care

What is the purpose of your research? What is the problem you are trying to solve? Why should one continue reading this research? Make sure the first sentence of your abstract is a “high-level” statement about the relevance of your project to a particular field. For example, If you are researching certain molecular targets, let the reader know why. Is it linked to a disease? Perhaps put a statistic about that disease as your opening sentence.

  • State the methodology

A methodology statement gives your work credibility and establishes the power of your results.  If your sample size was n=1000, the reader knows your results are more significant than if your sample size was n=50.

  • Report major findings

Report the major findings concisely. Try to include only relevant quantitative information so as not to overwhelm the reader.

  • Interpret your results

Interpret your results and how it addresses the research question posed earlier in the abstract. What do your results mean? And how do they change our understanding of your research topic? The end of your abstract should connect to the beginning of your abstract in this manner.

  • Consider stating limitations and future directions

Consider no more than one sentence about limitations and future directions. This isn’t always necessary but could add value.

  • Format appropriately

Academic journals, conferences, and other presentation platforms will specify formatting. Some abstracts are one paragraph. Other abstracts will be split into some version of the following sections: purpose, methods, results, discussion, conclusions.

  • Count your words

Again, this is usually specified. Do not exceed the allowed word count. Abstracts are typically anywhere from 200 to 500 words. The idea is to be as concise as possible. Your abstract is often one of many abstracts being evaluated by the reader – get your ideas across as quickly and efficiently as possible.

  • Use key words

Your abstract will be indexed in a database with many other abstracts. Use keywords to make it searchable.

  • Revise, revise, revise

Read the abstract as if you were somebody who knows nothing about your research area. This will help you determine if you communicated your ideas effectively. You are the only person who understands your project at such a detailed level. Others are seeing this information for the first time. Make sure it’s understandable.  Consider having your abstract reviewed by others in different lab groups.

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Contributed by Nabeel U. Ali

Nabeel Ali is a Medical Student and Engineer focused on improving healthcare through disruptive research, technology and venture. He is an award-winning and published researcher, and has received national attention for his medical technology innovations.  Outside of medical school, Nabeel serves as a Research Fellow at the Massachusetts General Hospital / Harvard Medical School, Reviewer for the Journal of Digital Imaging, Contributing Writer for in-Training Magazine, and advises a number of technology start-ups.

LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/nabeeluali

Twitter: @NabeelUAli

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