11 common mistakes when writing an abstract

Audience: Authors preparing research papers for peer-reviewed journals.

An abstract is typically the summary or overview of a scientific paper, thesis or report. The key purpose of the abstract is to provide a reader with the full story so that they can decide whether your paper is relevant to their needs. As there is a never-ending supply of papers to read, you only have two chances to engage your reader and to convince them to keep reading. The first is the title (and the keywords) and the second is the abstract. Some researchers will only read your abstract and never intend to download the entire paper.

The importance of a well-written abstract cannot be overstated. A well-written abstract will maximise the chances of your paper being read, understood and even enjoyed and will maximise your publication success. Not only will referees appreciate a good abstract, the abstract may be the only part of the paper they are sent when invited to review a paper.

This focus of this article is what is commonly wrong with abstracts. Other common writing problems in other document sections and in science writing in general are covered in my writing workshops and other blogposts; for example, verbosity, lack of continuity of ideas, long sentences and the use of overly-complicated language

Please note: Some of the points raised in this article (e.g. no. 4 and no. 6) may not be relevant to some disciplines or to some journals: i.e. some journals do not require abstracts at all or require a very brief overview. Always read the Instructions to Authors (see no 11.) or email the Journal’s editor.

These mistakes are not listed in any particular order and some overlap:

1. Not writing a summary

The abstract is a summary. A summary is the most important parts of your project or topic. Summarising is a skill that is not necessarily straightforward and its importance in scientific writing cannot be underestimated. Summarising is the task of being able to identify and then separate key points from the other information that supports these points. The purpose of the abstract is to provide the reader with a summary of your entire project so that they can gain a solid understanding of your project before they start reading your paper.

2. Not paraphrasing your own work

Summarising includes paraphrasing. Paraphrasing is when you use your own words to convey meaning from another source, even if that other source is your own writing. One common mistake authors make in abstracts is to copy entire sentences from different parts of their paper. This is not summarising and it is not paraphrasing.

3. Not summarising your entire project

The abstract is a summary of your entire project. If your paper is structured into Introduction, Methods, Results and Discussion sections, then your abstract includes a summary of each section, often written as a complete paragraph or with headings. When authors leave out key information, for example the aim or problem statement or their conclusions, the reader is left in the dark. This might be the authors intention, or even conventional in some journals within some disciplines. Even so, omitting key information easily causes confusion and may cause your reader to think, “I’m not sure what they are trying to do here; I think I’ll just leave this paper for now and maybe read it later”.

4. Including too much (or not enough) background

Occasionally authors include too many details about the background of the project as they do not understand the role of the abstract and treat it as an introduction to the Introduction. This means that when they write the Introduction they either run out of things to say or repeat a lot of details presented in the abstract.

The background of your project builds the picture of why your project problem is important. The background is often left out because the author assumes the reader knows the background thoroughly or that they will read these details when they get to the Introduction. If the background is essential to explain or justify why your problem is worth solving, including a brief summary of this may be crucial. Also, never assume your reader knows your topic or project thoroughly; they might, but if you have summarised effectively and written succinctly these readers will simply skim over this part and keep reading. The rest of your readers will be informed and, hopefully, engaged in your story and want to keep reading. 

5. Using the abstract as a de facto Introduction or Discussion

After including important introductory and conclusion information in the abstract, some authors assume that they then don’t need to include this information in the paper itself because it looks repetitive. There are two problems here: firstly, it is best to write your abstract after you have written your paper (although writing a draft abstract in the early stages of your project is a good idea); secondly, it is only repetitive if you copy entire sentences from your paper across to the abstract. Remember point 1: an abstract is a summary of each section of the paper.

6. Including too many (or not enough) methods

A brief summary of the Methods is important as they are a key component of any study. Depending upon the type of study, this may include study design, subjects, any interventions, measurements or sampling procedure and data treatment and analysis. Given the potential complexity and diversity of a study’s method it is easy to add too much detail; i.e. listing all the data collection instruments and their brand names.

 It is also important here to make a distinction between the methods of a study and the methodology as these terms are often used interchangeably. Methods explain how a study was carried out and can include the research or project design, what was measured and how the data was treated or manipulated and statistically analysed. Methodology is the investigation and discussion of how a study’s methods influenced the nature of the results and is often discussed in the Discussion when interpreting the results. If you need to develop novel methods or to modify standard methods in order to complete your study, then this part of your project is also part of the methodology. Methodology studies are often published as separate papers. If your study included standard methods then a simple one-three sentence summary may be sufficient in the abstract. If your study involved developing a new method or investigated or critiqued a current method, then an overview of this methodology also may be needed.

7. Not explaining what your results mean

This is the summary of the Discussion or Conclusion sections of your paper. Rarely do results require little explanation and usually need to be interpreted in light of the aim and the problem statement. Some authors have suggested that leaving out the answer or the interpretation of the results is intentional in order to create anticipation in the reader. This is a risky tactic that may cause your reader to abandon your paper.

8. Including citations, abbreviations and detailed measurements

Standard convention is to avoid writing abbreviations, detailed measurements or citations in an abstract. In some cases, and in some disciplines, it may be difficult to avoid using abbreviations if they are used as terms, difficult to write in full or impractical to leave out.

9. Including information not presented in the paper

It may be tempting to include extra information that is not in the paper but it is misleading.

10. Not following the Instructions to Authors provided by your target journal

This seemingly obvious mistake is very common. Instructions to Authors are instructions; they are not suggestions or simply good ideas, nor are they meant to replace a science style guide. Depending upon the extent of this mistake, not following the Instructions to Authors provided by your target journal can mean that your paper will be returned.

11. Not including keywords

Keywords of your study are essential to ensure that your paper is correctly indexed. Some authors assume this step is not be not necessary as they will provide their keywords when submitting the paper.

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