How to Write a Scientific Abstract — a Reviewer’s Perspective

October 13, 2010

Debra G. Silberg, MD, PhD

Barbara Jung, MD

Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, IL

 

The abstract is the vehicle of choice in academia to communicate the summary of ongoing research. It is used to select research for presentation and may be indexed in databases and electronic libraries. As such, the abstract is the face of the research, and a good abstract will be the first step for any further dissemination of the work.

But how exactly does one write a “good” abstract? The most objective way to approach this topic is to take the potential reviewer’s perspective. While writing the perfect abstract is clearly an art form, there is broad consensus over do’s and don’ts of abstract preparation. The following list is by no means all encompassing, but may serve as a general guideline for all of us preparing to showcase our work. 

 

General

  • Do prepare an abstract that is scientifically sound, unique and ethically honest. 
  • Do plan ahead. Remember to start writing early and revise often. Well-crafted abstracts are not written on the day of the deadline, and the reviewers will notice.
  • Do find an abstract that represents your ideal abstract and use it as a style template. 
  • Do not use overly long sentences or a lot of abbreviations. Have a colleague from another field read the abstract for clarity. 
  • Do check for spelling or grammatical errors. Have someone whose native language is English proofread it, if at all possible. 

Title 

  • Do make it succinct: what is the main finding of the presented research? 
  • Do make a statement, e.g., X is regulated by Y affecting Z outcome for mechanistic studies. 
  • Do catch the reader’s attention. The title should entice the reader to find out more. 
  • Do not make the title too long or too complicated. If you cannot clearly state the findings of your study, the reviewer will not go through the trouble of finding out. 
  • Do not use general statements, e.g., “inflammation in colon cancer.” You will need to be more specific to peak the reviewers’ interest. 

Authors 

  • Do confirm authorship ahead of time. This ideally is determined at the inception of any study, but specifically with collaborations: Who will be presenting? Are they available during the meeting? 
  • Do have senior and presenting author(s) involved in every part of the abstract submission. 
  • Do assign author rank commensurate with work performed.
  • Do assure that every author has ample time to read and comment. Make sure all authors are comfortable with the way the data are presented. Now is the time to resolve conflicts. 
  • Do not list authors who have not assumed responsibility for the work presented or who may not know about the submission. 
  • Do not agree to be listed as an author if you are not comfortable with the work. You will be responsible for the content.   

Background and aims

  • Do provide a brief introduction of the field, highlighting the questions that lead to the study. This is the hook for the reader. 
  • Do include the aims of the study. They help the reader transition into the results section and highlight the thought process that went into undertaking the study. 
  • Do not give details that are not essential to understand the work presented. 
  • Do not focus overly on your own previous work if not directly relevant. 

Methods

  • Do list all methods used to answer the aims. 
  • Do be specific but succinct. 
  • Do not be too lengthy. Specific questions may best be answered during the discussion of the poster or published later with the full paper. 

Results

  • Do report in a logical fashion what data were generated in response to the questions raised in the background. Only report data you are certain of.
  • Do tell a full story. The strongest abstract is the one with the most complete answers. 
  • Do acknowledge if the study is not complete, but data presented are from the ongoing work. 
  • Do not report data from other work; this is plagiarism. 
  • Do not attempt to submit multiple abstracts using very similar or identical data; this is duplication. 

Conclusions

  • Do put findings in perspective. 
  • Do emphasize the strong points of your work: novelty, innovation and/or clinical relevance. 

Most of all, write many abstracts and often. We look forward to receiving your work! |

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