Abstracts matter more than you think – and writing a good one is hard

Even academics, never mind practitioners, will rarely read beyond an underwhelming and uninformative summary, says Maia Chankseliani

May 4, 2023
A couple try to cram suitcases into a small car, symbolising abstracts
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Are you an academic struggling with writing an abstract for your paper? Are you wondering if it’s even worth the effort? As editor-in-chief of an academic social science journal, I can give you a definitive answer: yes.

A good abstract can make or break your paper. It is the first thing that readers, editors and reviewers see. And it might be your only chance to communicate your findings to a wider audience. So investing time in writing a clear and concise abstract is a must.

Let’s start by refuting a common misconception. You might have heard that an abstract is like a film trailer in that it should give enough information to intrigue the audience, but not so much that it spoils the plot. This is not correct. On the contrary, you must reveal your punchline in the abstract. If you don’t, the chances are that your paper won’t be read.

In my academic capacity, I read at least a dozen articles a week, and often many more. In my editing capacity, I read about 40. I wish to learn from the abstract what the study has found, what methods it used and why its findings are novel. The majority of abstracts tell me the topic of the manuscript, and sometimes the methods, but very rarely do I learn what makes the study novel. That makes me less likely to engage with the paper meaningfully, including citing it or sending it out for review.

Now think about policymakers or practitioners. Reading academic papers is not part of their job description. In fact, most of the organisations employing them are not subscribed to academic publications at all. Hence, it is unlikely that a practitioner or a policymaker has access or time to read the full paper. Hence, the abstract is the only chance academics have to communicate their findings to these audiences. So if you want your work to have impact, it is a good idea to include at the end of the abstract the implications of your findings, not only for future research but also for policy or practice.

Ideally, your abstract should also introduce the topic in a way that is comprehensible to an educated reader, telling them what was known about this topic prior to this study, what specific issue you addressed (framed as a question, statement or hypothesis), how you addressed it, what the findings are and why they are novel. It isn’t easy to fit all that into a few hundred words, but it is possible.

Describing your results clearly and concisely, avoiding technical jargon, is the single most important part of the abstract, but this is where things normally go wrong. Most abstracts in the social sciences tell the reader what the study does (for example, it details the characteristics of x and y, then analyses the relationship between x and y) instead of what it finds (a positive link between x and y).

Bear in mind too that, in the social sciences at least, results and implications need to be contextualised. This means that an abstract should, at a minimum, make it clear where the study was conducted and how transferable the results can be to other contexts. For simplicity, think about the context as the geographic area and/or institution that the study examined. If you don’t mention these, it implies an assumption on your part that the results are universal – but that assumption is untenable.

Sometimes an abstract mentions the country where the study was conducted but still describes the result as if that context does not matter. Again, this won’t wash. Ideally, the results need to be reported in such a way that they are linked with the contexts in which they occurred.

But context should not be a paper’s only novelty. Even if no study has previously looked at the use of English as the medium of instruction in international branch campuses in country x, you need to explain why looking at it in country x casts new light on the issue in question: in this case, the use of English as the medium of instruction in international branch campuses.

None of this can be dashed off in a few minutes. Writing an abstract is an art and a skill that takes practice and feedback. Remember, the more you write, the better you get. And I suggest experimenting with different approaches. That way, the important task of abstract-writing can also be a fun challenge.

Maia Chankseliani is associate professor of comparative and international education at the University of Oxford and is editor-in-chief of the International Journal of Educational Research.

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