How to write an abstract for a scientific paper

February 11, 2016

Dr. Jennifer C van Velkinburgh, Filipodia Publishing


An abstract is a condensed summary or overview of the entire paper. As such, writing the abstract is usually best (and easiest) when carried out after the paper has been written (or the majority of the content is in place). Many readers (of electronic databases, such as PubMed, or print journals) focus their initial energies on reading abstracts, so that they may quickly determine if they are interested in the topic and to judge the overall quality of the study and its findings.


Another key aspect of the abstract is formatting. Abstract structure varies from journal to journal and depending on the context of the publication. However, there are two main structures that are used in most cases: structured and unstructured. The structured abstract is divided into well-defined sections, such as background (also called ‘aim’ or ‘objective’), methods, results, and conclusion. The unstructured abstract contains the same information, but is formatted as a paragraph without subheadings. It is important to verify which format is required by the target journal since the abstract is often the first thing an editor or reviewer will see. Journals usually have word count limitations and some even have specific content requirements for each section (such as p-values and numerical data in the ‘results”) or sentence structure requirements (such as the World Journal of Gastroenterology requiring that the “objective” sentence start as “To investigate/determine/examine….”).


Despite these differences in formatting and style, the content order is the same in each abstract. The background information is presented first. In this section of the abstract, it is important to identify the purpose of our study and explain the problem/unknown being investigated. We should keep this section short because it is not the most important part of the abstract. Then in the methods section, we need to explain what was done in the study and how the problem/unknown solved/investigated. The following results section is the most important and longest. In this section, we need to describe the general findings of the research. We can also put details of the outcomes in this section as long as the abstract won’t exceed the limitation of total word count. Finally, we reach the conclusion section. In this section, we need to address the importance of our findings that are supported by the data presented in the preceding section.