Many research publications require an abstract, which is a brief synopsis of the text outlining its major points. The function of the abstract is to inform prospective readers of the content and argument of the text, but also to attract readers to read the whole text. As Samuel Johnson (1755) defined the term, an abstract is "a smaller quantity containing the virtue or power of a greater" (quoted in Oxford English Dictionary). Another way of describing the abstract is that it "constitute[s] the gateway that leads readers to take up an article, journals to select contributions, or organisers of conferences to accept or reject papers" (Lorés, 2004, p. 281). An abstract therefore needs to reflect the content of the full text.
The information below is of a general kind. In research writing, there are different formats for abstract writing; journals, for instance, have stylesheets with information about word counts for abstracts, and students will need to check with their supervisors if their department has specific guidelines for abstract writing.
Types of abstract
Two common types of abstracts are article abstracts and conference abstracts.
Abstracts usually accompany research articles - in many journals the abstract is published as part of the article, after the title bur before the proper text. Abstract services and journal providers publish abstracts, which serve to inform prospective readers about the contents of the article.
At many departments, students writing their degree projects are required to include an abstract. These are sometimes made available in university repositories of degree projects and theses, such as LUP Student Papers at Lund University.
Another kind of abstract is the one that is submitted to conference CFPs (Call For Papers). Researchers wishing to present their research at a conference send an abstract outlining their proposed paper.
A call for papers is sent out well in advance of the actual conference. Because of the long-term planning that is necessary for conference participants, conference abstracts are sometimes written before the papers they describe have been written or even before the actual research has been concluded. Therefore, conference abstracts cannot always show the same level of specificity as will be found in article abstracts. To attract the attention of conference organisers, conference abstracts need to be to the point, however. Author must show their command of the topic and the abstract has to be structured in a way that gives an idea of the organisation of the proposed presentation.
Format of abstracts
A common structure for abstracts is Problem-Method-Results-Conclusions; many abstracts indeed more or less follow the IMRaD structure, consisting of an introduction to the topic, sections on method and results, and finally a concluding part that discusses the findings presented in the article. In a study of research abstracts within the field of applied linguistics, Santos (1996) identified a pattern consisting of five "moves". These moves constitute the transitions between the different stages of the abstract, each fulfilling a "communicative purpose" (Santos, p. 485). In brief, the pattern that Santos identified looks like this:
- Situating the research
- Presenting the research
- Describing the methodology
- Summarising the results
- Discussing the research
Santos, M.B. (1996). The textual organization of research paper abstracts in applied linguistics.
Text - Interdisciplinary Journal for the Study of Discourse, 16, 481-500.
This pattern can be applied to abstracts in other fields as well. As seen in the example below, Santos's pattern highlights the transitions of the text. Not all stages will be found in every abstract, and the order of the moves may vary. Still, Santos's list of moves can be used as a kind of template for abstract writing.
The abstract below comes from a study in zoology about group signatures in animal vocalisation:
Townsend, S.W., Hollén, L.I., Manser, M.B. (2010). Meerkat close calls encode group-specific signatures, but receivers fail to discriminate. Animal Behaviour, 80, 133-138.
In the left column, the five moves that are commonly found in abstract texts (Santos 1996) are listed, and the corresponding sections in our example are found in the right column.
Meerkat close calls encode group-specific signatures, but receivers fail to discriminate (Townsend, Hollen & Manser, 2010)
1. Situating the research
A great deal of variation is known to underlie the vocalizations of animals. Calls can for example vary between individuals or between social and behavioural contexts. Calls also have the potential to vary between groups. Many group-living animals are known to produce stereotyped group-specific calls and such group signatures are thought to play a role in territory defence or indeed mate choice. Group signatures are generally found in long-distance call variants that work to maintain contact between group members, sometimes referred to as 'contact calls'. Cooperatively breeding, territorial meerkats, Suricata suricatta, also use contact calls, potentially to maintain social organization during foraging. However, these contact calls are generally quieter than long-distance calls in other species, and better described as 'close calls'.
2. Presenting the research
We investigated whether these similar call types also possess group-specific signatures and whether any such variation is used by receivers.
3. Describing the methodology
We recorded close calls from 71 individuals belonging to 10 meerkat groups.
4. Summarising the results
We found that such close calls indeed possessed group signatures, but that this underlying variation did not appear to be used by receivers, possibly because meerkats use other sensory systems to identify nongroup members.
5. Discussing the research
We stress the importance of conducting playback experiments when investigating group-specific vocal signatures and use our results as a basis for predicting which animals may rely on group information encoded within close calls.