Writing a journal article


The abstract is the first thing your reader will see. It’s also the first impression that editors will get of your paper. A good abstract will leave people satisfied that they know what you did, why you did it, and what you found out. A good abstract most likely means people will want to read the rest of the paper, and it greatly increases the chances of people remembering your paper later on. This, in turn, means a good abstract is important for people to cite your paper. If your main message is clear from the abstract, others are much more likely to recall what your paper was all about when they pick it up a year after first reading it – for example when they are in the process of writing a paper of their own and are looking for appropriate citations.

Abstracts differ greatly between journals, in both style and length. It is critically important that you follow the instructions for authors for your particular journal. Here is an overview of some of the differences that you might encounter.

Descriptive abstracts give some background information, and summarise some of the argument. Their analogue in the movie world is a trailer. They tell you enough about what the paper is all about so that you want to keep reading it – but they don’t give it all away. They often don’t give you the final take-home messages, but rather, they end in statements such as: “The implications of these findings for policy development are discussed.” Some disciplines use these kinds of abstracts a lot, but personally, I find them frustrating. Take my previous example just above. If there are important policy implications, wouldn’t it be much nicer to know what they actually are, rather than just knowing that there are implications? My sense is that descriptive abstracts should be avoided, unless you are dealing with a journal and discipline where it is expected of you to write such an abstract. Otherwise, readers get a lot more out of ‘real summaries’.

Real summaries is my slightly clumsy term for the more common type of abstract, which tells you about what you did, why you did it, what you found, and what the implications are. It’s really the latter that sets them apart from descriptive abstracts. Real summaries fully reflect the scope of the paper from motivation to take-home-messages. So, for example, a last sentence of a real summary might be: “Our findings suggest that a more participatory approach is needed to improve citizen acceptance of the suggested reforms to water policy.” This doesn’t just tell you that there are policy implications, but it tells you something (of course only very briefly) about what those implications actually are: in this case, the need for more citizen participation.

Structured abstracts are a type of abstract that some journals use. They tend to use a series of sub-headings or numbers; and authors are supposed to follow this structure when they write their summaries. The Journal of Applied Ecology is a good example of such a format. Typically, the different parts of the abstract refer to different sections of the paper. For example, there might be one part of the abstract that summarises the background and motivates the paper, one point that summarises the aims and study location, one for the methods, and so on. In the case of the Journal of Applied Ecology, the last sentence needs to be a clear summary of the take-home messages.

Although structured abstracts are relatively uncommon, almost all abstracts work well if they are first written as if they were structured abstracts. Typically, abstracts will mirror the structure of the overall paper. It is particularly important to have a clear first sentence that motivates the need for the paper and gives background information; and it is particularly important to have clear take-home messages. Perhaps the least important part of an abstract (in terms of length) is the methods. A summary of methods should be included, but often this can be quite short. Given that not everything can be included in an abstract, the methods can be dealt with relatively briefly, whereas it is critical that the motivation and take-home-messages are long enough that they are clear.

Abstracts vary widely in length. Some journals allow as little as 120 words, whereas others go up to 400 or so. Longer is not necessarily better, or easier to write. In all cases, it’s important to try to appropriate fit the content within the prescribed length.

Finally, it works best if you write your abstract last – to summarise your document, you first need to have your document finished.

See also:

Possible exercices:
  • Collect several abstracts from existing papers, both within your own expertise and outside your own expertise.
  • Analyse these abstracts: Do they follow a clear structure? Which abstracts tell you a lot, and which tell you very little? Which do you like, and why? Which are easy to follow, and why? Is the ‘so-what’ clear?
  • Write a short list of attributes that you found frustrating in other people’s abstracts, and a list of things you found really useful.
  • When you write your own abstract, use this list as a reference point.

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