Writing an abstract

This page explains what an abstract is, its purpose, structure and what to include.

What is an abstract?

It's a concise summary of a research paper or whole thesis. It is original and should be paraphrased from your paper, not created by cutting and pasting sentences. An abstract must make sense by itself, without substantial reference to outside sources or to the actual paper. It highlights key content areas, your research purpose, the relevance or importance of your work, and the main outcomes. It is often a well-developed single paragraph, although sometimes dot points or headings are used. Typical length is approximately 100 -  250 words,  but follow guidelines from your faculty or publisher for specific requirements such as number of words, indentation and line spacing.

  • What's the purpose of an abstract?

    To briefly outline all parts of the paper. Abstracts enable other researchers and students to quickly decide whether a paper is relevant to their research. If relevant, researchers may select and read the whole paper. Therefore, a good abstract is critical if you want other researchers to read and cite your work. For journals, abstracts are often open to all readers not only subscribers. This has great potential for raising interest in your paper.

  • When is an abstract required?

    Abstracts are usually required when:

    • submitting articles to journals
    • applying for research grants
    • completing and submitting a thesis
    • submitting proposals for conference papers

    They may also be required for some undergraduate research projects. Even if you don't make a career in research, the ability to succinctly convey the major points of your document is an invaluable work skill.

  • When should you write your abstract?

    Write your abstract last, when your paper is complete: You need to be certain of your arguments and conclusions, and which results you will include in the abstract before you write it. However, the abstract is placed at the beginning of your paper, immediately following the title page.

What should I include in an abstract?

Most abstracts include the following parts, within one or two continuous paragraphs.

  • Reason for your research

    What is the real-world impact of the issue or problem you are researching? Why is it interesting or useful to undertake this research?

  • Research problem

    What problem does this work attempt to solve? Be specific.

  • Scope

    To what populations/issues can this research be applied? For example, if you are researching shellfish, is it one specific kind? A specific kind located to a particular area such as Port Phillip Bay? Is data drawn from a specific time period?

  • Methodology

    An abstract may include specific models or approaches used in the larger study. Other abstracts may describe the types of evidence used in the research.

  • Results

    The major findings of this research which are relevant to your research problem. One to three sentences may be enough.

  • Discussion

    How do your findings align with previous research on this problem? How does this work add to the body of knowledge on the topic? NB: This should be brief - one sentence or two.

  • Implications

    Are there any practical or theoretical applications from your findings or implications for future research?

  • Key terms

    List all key terms from your research below the abstract to help with cataloguing of your work by libraries and publishers and to assist other researchers to access your work.

Example abstract

*The numbers in square brackets below are there to highlight different features, they are not examples of correct referencing. 

Benefits, costs and trade-offs of nesting habitat selection in Little Penguins

Nest site selection in birds is expected to represent a trade-off between a suitable microclimate for thermoregulation and visual protection against predators or social disturbance [1]. In this study, I examine the influence of different characteristics of the nesting habitat on breeding success, predation, and the nesting behaviours of Little Penguins (Eudyptula minor) in South Australia to help understand potential fitness benefits, costs or trade-offs associated with nesting habitat selection [2]. I found that neither predation nor vigilance were influenced by the characteristics of the nest. However, nest type was an important factor for both breeding success and thermoregulation: birds nesting in rock nests had the highest hatching and breeding success, while individuals nesting in artificial nests engaged more in maintenance behaviours [3], suggesting that thermoregulation demands may be the most important factors for nest site selection in Little Penguins [4].

Colombelli-Négrel, D. (2019). Benefits, costs and trade-offs of nesting habitat selection in Little Penguins. Journal of Ornithology, 160(2), 515–527. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10336-019-01636-z

[1] Reason for research

[2] Research Problem

[3] Findings

[4] Discussion and Conclusion

Final tips

Look at abstracts of research on a similar problem to your own to find models for your discipline, which may vary in the amount of emphasis on each component.

Edit carefully: as your abstract is an important way to promote your work it's worth taking time to write it well.

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