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How to write an abstract | Examples for your research paper

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How to write an abstract

Definition: Abstract

An abstract is a short summary of a research paper. It is not part of the actual text and must be included at the very beginning of your work. You write an abstract to give a brief account of the most important information relating to the research background, structure, method, data analysis, and results of your research paper. An abstract must never be confused with the cover text (blurb) of a novel. While the blurb is all about creating suspense, the opposite is true when you write an abstract: Making it very clear early on what your results are will help the reader evaluate the relevance of your paper.

The length of the abstract should not exceed one or two pages and must never be confused with the conclusion. In contrast to the conclusion, the abstract can stand on its own. It does not show up in the structure and the table of contents of your thesis.

How to write an abstract: An overview

Points to remember about how to write an abstractExplanation
What?An abstract is a short summary of the main ideas of a research paper
Why?Reading an abstract can help you decide whether the results and methods of a particular paper are relevant to your own research and whether it is worthwhile for you to read the whole paper
Where?The abstract is to be put first (before the actual text). It should appear between the title page and the table of contents
When?The abstract is the very last thing you should write. It is possible to come up with a precise summary of your work only after you have written the whole paper
LengthThe abstract should comprise between one third of a page and one full page, depending on the length of the actual paper. It should never exceed two pages
Contents1. Background, gap in literature
2. Research question
3. Methods used to address the gap in literature
4. Main results
5. Interpretation
Each of these points should be addressed in only a few sentences
InternationalNo matter what language you write your abstract in, an English translation of your abstract is often required so that your results can be reviewed by an international audience

Also useful: What is plagiarism?

The short version of your research paper: How to write an abstract

If you are writing a short term paper which does not require your own research, you do not have to write an abstract. That is mainly because shorter seminar papers and term papers are not published. For your bachelor’s thesis, master’s thesis, dissertation, or any other research paper, however, your university will in all likelihood ask you to write an abstract.

This article provides an overview of how to write an abstract. What is more, it offers examples of how an abstract can be written. Allow yourself time to study how to write an abstract, with a little help from this article. You might need to practise writing an abstract, but it is not as hard as you may think.

Abstract: Examples

Abstract Example 1: English abstract addressing the main points of your paper

Abstract research paper

Abstract Example 2: English abstract of a master’s thesis with keywords

Abstract example
Note: You can include relevant keywords when writing an abstract. These provide insights into the main topics addressed in your research paper (cf. Oertner, St. John, & Thelen 2014: 30).

How to write an abstract: Structure & content

There is one thing you must understand about how to write an abstract: You have very limited space to convince the reader that your work is worth reading and that your results are relevant. Thus, an abstract is NOT like a blurb on a paperback novel. Blurbs are designed to create suspense: They leave you desperate to read the novel, because you want to find out what they are not giving away about the story. An abstract is just the opposite. When you write your abstract, you have to spill the beans and make it very clear what the reader can expect from your work, particularly as far as the results are concerned.

Note: It can be a big help to focus on reading the abstracts of your secondary sources first. You can use them as a basis for evaluation to determine whether the results of a particular source will be useful to back up your line of argument. In particular, controversial topics (and there will always be controversy in science) demand convincing evidence: The abstract shows the aim of a text or study and thus helps the reader in selecting the most useful and relevant material.

The abstract should contain important aspects of the paper, like the research question, purpose, scope, limitations, study design, methods, main results, main idea or message, key interpretations, implications, and validity (cf. Schnur 2005, as quoted in Theisen 2013: 101).

Keep in mind: Your abstract should not just focus on what you did. Make sure to also talk about your results and the conclusions you can now draw. That means you have to emphasize the increase in knowledge and the new insights gained (cf. Samac, Prenner, & Schwetz 2009: 56).

The abstract follows the same structure as your paper:

Abstract structureContent
IntroductionResearch question, research context, gap in literature, hypotheses
MethodApproaching (and attempting to close) the gap in literature: methods, study design, and data analysis (e.g. coding, statistical analysis)
ResultsMain results (positive and negative)
DiscussionInterpretation of results: limitations and weaknesses, practical implications, suggestions for future research, discussion of theoretical aspects, etc.

(cf. Kruse 2007: 186)

Note: The key to writing a good abstract is to be as precise as possible. Each of the above-mentioned aspects should be addressed very briefly, in just about two sentences (cf. Kruse 2007: 186).

Getting down to writing your abstract: Length & goal

You might have heard the term ‘summary’ referring to an abstract of a research paper (cf. Oertner, St. John, & Thelen 2014: 93). However, do not make the mistake of assuming that an abstract is something rather general. You would be on the wrong track. When asked to write an abstract for your bachelor’s or master’s thesis, you are expected to deliver a very precise summary of your whole paper.

An abstract is a summary of a publication or an article on one third of a DIN-A4 page (cf. Kruse 2007: 185). Stickel-Wolf & Wolf provide a rough guideline for the word count: They say that an abstract should not contain more than 100 words (cf. 2013: 249).

Note: Generally speaking, an abstract for a bachelor’s or master’s thesis should not exceed one page, and the absolute maximum is two pages (cf. Rossig & Prätsch 2005: 89). The reason for this is self-explanatory: The purpose of the abstract is to offer a quick overview of, for example, a 60- or 80-page paper.

An abstract’s right to exist is founded in its purpose of helping a potential reader to quickly find out if it is worthwhile to read the whole paper (cf. Rossig & Prätsch 2005: 89). For this reason, an abstract has to offer everything the reader needs in order to evaluate the relevance of a research paper for their own work. It is the ultimate way of advertising your research.

Keep in mind: An abstract only refers to concrete facts which are dealt with in the actual paper. You cannot write about something here which you never mention in your research paper (cf. Kruse 2007: 186).

You can save yourself a lot of work and trouble if you concentrate on reading the abstracts of published papers first; most papers these days provide abstracts (cf. Oertner, St. John, & Thelen 2014: 80). If you take your time to thoroughly read the abstracts, you will be able to judge whether a particular article will help you to support your line of argumentation. If not, then just move on the next article. You can check out the sample abstracts in this blog entry to get a better idea of how to write an abstract and what an abstract looks like.

When to write the abstract and where to put it

You are probably wondering where the abstract should be placed in your research paper: at the beginning or towards the end? It is common to include the abstract right at the beginning (cf. Rossig & Prätsch 2005: 89; Samac, Prenner, & Schwetz 2009: 56). As we have established, it is a helpful tool for the reader to get an overview of the whole paper as early as possible. It is good to know what will follow. So, it would not be logical to put it at the end, right? Stickel-Wolf and Wolf recommend embedding the abstract in between the title page and the table of contents (cf. 2013: 249).

The next question about ‘How to write an abstract’ is a bit trickier. When is the right time to write the abstract? Given that it is to be added at the very beginning, before the actual text, you might think it is the first thing you are supposed to write. However, you will not be able to write a clear-cut and precise summary at a stage when you do not even know what you are summarizing. Therefore, you can only write the abstract after you have written the whole paper. How else would you know enough about your results to give a complete record of your whole work (cf. Rossig & Prätsch 2005: 89)?

Note: You can draw essential information to write your abstract from your conclusion, as this part briefly repeats the research questions and provides an evaluative summary of the results (cf. Stickel-Wolf 2013: 249).

International popularity: How to write an abstract in different languages

The question of how to write an abstract is popular not just in an English-speaking context. It increasingly concerns international students as well. Nowadays, it is becoming more and more important to write the whole paper in English, rather than in the native language of the country a student studies in. Indeed, many papers are still written in the native language of the country. But your research paper not being written in English does not mean that this also holds true for the abstract. Often, the student needs to write an abstract in not only German, Spanish, or French (depending on the country you study in) but also English.

An English abstract (in addition to, say, a German abstract) is necessary to ensure that a research paper will be accessible to an international market. Sometimes, only an English abstract is required. Also, as Samac, Prenner, and Schwetz point out, an English translation of the German text (if your thesis is in German) must be provided on the very same page to meet international standards (2009: 56).

Example of an abstract in German and English

write an abstract example

Note: Academic English is quite a bit different from academic German, Spanish, and other languages. We recommend that you read research papers in English to get a feel for the differences in style and structure (cf. Karmasin & Ribing 2014: 45).

Abstract vs. conclusion: How to write a good abstract

Caution: The abstract is NEVER a conclusion of your research paper and it differs from the conclusion in many aspects. Make sure to read the sample abstracts provided on this page to get a good grasp on the major differences between the abstract and the conclusion.

AbstractConclusion
Very short, in many cases even less than 150 words (cf. Kruse 2007: 186)More detailed, includes discussion and evaluative summary (cf. Kruse 2007: 186)
At the beginning of the paperAt the end of the paper
Not part of the actual text, does not appear in the structure and table of contents (cf. Rossig & Prätsch 2005: 89)Vital part of the text, must appear in the structure and table of contents
Without evaluation of the author, focus on giving an accurate report of the contents and the results of a research paper (cf. Theisen 2013: 101)Evaluation and conclusion based on the secondary sources quoted and/or own data
Can be read and understood independently of the whole text—e.g. can be accessed in a database (cf. Kruse 2007: 186)Integrated part of the text, cannot be understood without reading the whole text, context needed (cf. Kruse 2007: 186)

In a nutshell

  • An abstract is a short summary of a research paper. It is embedded between the title page and the table of contents, and appears before the actual text.
  • The abstract should not exceed one page (at the most, two pages). Ideally, it should fit on a single page.
  • An abstract is a brief account of your paper. It provides information about the structure, argumentation, method, and results of your research paper (cf. Oertner, St. John, & Thelen 2014: 93).
  • The aim of writing an abstract is to make it possible for the reader to quickly evaluate the relevance of your work without having to read much. Also, reading abstracts makes your life easier when you are doing research. You can decide which paper is worth reading and which one is not, just based on the abstract.
  • There is a clear difference between the abstract and the conclusion. The abstract is shorter, can be read independently of the text, and does not contain evaluations of the author which are not already part of the text (cf. Kruse 2007: 186).
  • Writing an English abstract or providing an English translation of your abstract is becoming increasingly important and popular. In this way, your research can be made internationally accessible.

Works cited

Karmasin, Matthias, & Rainer Ribing. 2014. Die Gestaltung wissenschaftlicher Arbeiten. 8th Edition. Vienna: Facultas.

Kruse, Otto. 2007. Keine Angst vor dem leeren Blatt – Ohne Schreibblockaden durchs Studium. 12th Edition. Frankfurt: Campus.

Oertner, Monika, Illona St. John, & Gabriele Thelen. 2014. Wissenschaftlich Schreiben – Ein Praxisbuch für Schreibtrainer und Studierende. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink.

Rossig, Wolfram E., & Joachim Prätsch. 2005. Wissenschaftliche Arbeiten. 5th Edition. Weyhe: PRINT-TEC.

Samac, Klaus, Monika Prenner, & Herbert Schwetz. 2009. Die Bachelorarbeit an Universität und Fachhochschule. Vienna: Facultas.

Stickel-Wolf, Christine, & Joachim Wolf. 2013. Wissenschaftliches Arbeiten und Lerntechniken – Erfolgreich studieren – gewusst wie! 7th Edition. Wiesbaden: Springer Gabler.

Theisen, Manuel René. 2013. Wissenschaftliches Arbeiten – Erfolgreich bei Bachelor- und Masterarbeit. Munich: Franz Vahlen.

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