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Writing Abstracts

Most journal articles start off with an abstract: a brief description or summary of the article. Its purpose is to allow readers to understand the main points even if they do not read the entire article or see the original report the abstract summarises. This type of abstract is sometimes called a prefatory abstract.

Three Types of Abstracts

 

  1. Prefatory abstract: A brief account that appears at the start of a journal article, report or thesis.
  2. Independent abstract: A brief account published on its own, without the accompanying article, in an indexing service or journal. The journal gives information on how to find the actual document.
  3. Business abstract: A brief account of a progress report or other technical report, often circulated amongst managers within a department.

Two common forms of abstracts are indicative abstracts and informative abstracts. Indicative abstracts list the purpose, scope and major topics, in the same way as a table of contents lists major subjects. They do not attempt to describe or explain the specific findings.

Informative abstracts are an actual synopsis of the document – a condensed account of the objective, procedure, results, conclusion and recommendations, if any. They are written as a preface to the main article (a prefatory abstract) or as a stand-alone document (an independent abstract). The abstract is a maximum of 300 words.

Some Guidelines for Writing Journal Abstracts

  • Write in the third person. 
  •  Announce the subject and scope of the article in the opening sentence.
  • Save procedural details for the article itself.
  • Only include what is necessary for the readers to quickly understand the main points.
  • Avoid jargon unless you are writing for people with specific technical training.
  • Define technical terms and adjust your language if you are writing for a wider audience.

Abstracts versus Summaries

 

The terms abstracts and summaries are often used interchangeably. Strictly speaking, there is a difference between these in technical writing. An abstract is written with the assumption that the reader may not actually read or even see the article. A summary is written at the end of the article; it brings together the main points of the author’s argument and may discuss implications. It is written with the assumption that the reader has already read the bulk of the article or report.

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