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Writing a Research Abstract
The written abstract is used in making selections for presentations at scientific meetings. Writing a good abstract is a formidable undertaking and many novice researchers wonder how it is possible to condense months of work into 300 to 400 words. Nevertheless, creating a well-written abstract is a skill that can be learned and mastering the skill will increase the probability that your research will be selected for presentation.
The first rule of writing abstracts is to know the rules. Organizers of scientific meetings set explicit limits on the length abstracts.
Authors must pay close attention to the published details of the meeting including deadlines and suggested format. Since reviewers have many abstracts to read and rank; those that don't conform to the stated rules are simply discarded.
The scientific abstract is usually divided into five unique sections: Title and Author Information, Introduction, Methods, Results, and Conclusions. The following paragraphs summarize what is expected in each of these sections.
Title and Author Information: The title should summarize the abstract and convince the reviewers that the topic is important, relevant, and innovative. To create a winning title, write out 6 to 10 key words found in the abstract and string them into various sentences. Once you have a sentence that adequately conveys the meaning of the work, try to condense the title yet still convey the essential message. Some organizations require a special format for the title, such as all uppercase letters, all bolded, or in italics. Be sure to check the instructions.
Following the title, the names of all authors and their institutional affiliations are listed. It is assumed the first author listed will make the oral presentation. Determine if the first author needs to meet any eligibility requirements to make the presentation. For example, the first author may need to be a member of the professional society sponsoring the research meeting. This information is always included with the abstract instructions.
Introduction: This usually consists of several sentences outlining the question addressed by the research. Make the first sentence of the introduction as interesting and dramatic as possible. For example, "100,000 people each year die of…" is more interesting than "An important cause of mortality is…" If space permits, provide a concise review of what is known about the problem addressed by the research, what remains unknown, and how your research project fills the knowledge gaps. The final sentence of the introduction describes the purpose of the study or the study's a priori hypothesis.
Methods: This is the most difficult section of the abstract to write. It must be scaled down sufficiently to allow the entire abstract to fit into the box, but at the same time it must be detailed enough to judge the validity of the work. For most clinical research abstracts, the following areas are specifically mentioned: research design; research setting; number of patients enrolled in the study and how they were selected; a description of the intervention (if appropriate); and a listing of the outcome variables and how they were measured. Finally, the statistical methods used to analyze the data are described.
Results: This section begins with a description of the subjects that were included and excluded from the study. For those excluded, provide the reason for their exclusion. Next, list the frequencies of the most important outcome variables. If possible, present comparisons of the outcome variables between various subgroups within the study (treated vs. untreated, young vs. old, male vs. female, and so forth). This type of data can be efficiently presented in a table, which is an excellent use of space. But before doing this, check the rules to see if tables can be used in the abstract. Numerical results should include standard deviations or 95% confidence limits and the level of statistical significance. If the results are not statistically significant, present the power of your study (beta-error rate) to detect a difference.
Conclusion: State concisely what can be concluded and its implications. The conclusions must be supported by the data presented in the abstract; never present unsubstantiated personal opinion. If there is room, address the generalizability of the results to populations other than that studied and the weaknesses of the study.
Research literature has a special language that concisely and precisely communicates meaning to other researches. Abstracts should contain this special language and be used appropriately. See The Glossary of commonly used research terms.
Avoid the use of medical jargon and excessive reliance on abbreviations. Limit abbreviations to no more than three and favor commonly used abbreviations. Always spell out the abbreviations the first time they are mentioned unless they are commonly recognized (e.g., CBC).
Although short in length, a good abstract typically takes several days to write. Take this into account when budgeting your time. Seek the help of an experienced mentor. Share the abstract with your mentor and make revisions based upon the feedback. Allow others to read your draft for clarity and to check for spelling and grammatical mistakes. Reading the abstract orally is an excellent way to catch grammatical errors and word omissions. Use the Scientific Abstract Checklist to assist your completion of the task. Finally, an example of an abstract previously accepted for presentation at the ACP Resident Research Competition is attached for your review.