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Writing abstracts and summaries

Abstract or summary? What’s the difference?

Feature Abstract Summary
Length 150–200 words Up to 1000 words
  1. Arouse interest of submission panel/editor
  2. The reader can skim and decide if relevant
  3. Supports further research in your field
  1. Gives a short concise account of extensive research in academic and business or organisational contexts.
  2. Clarifies the implications and recommendations that might result in future action.
Abstract type
  • Unstructured Abstract: A single paragraph that briefly summarises each main section of your paper.
  • Structured Abstract: the same as unstructured, but divided into several short sections, e.g. Background; Methodology; Findings; Implications.
  • Extended abstract: A mini paper organised the same way as a full paper (e.g. Introduction, Methods, Discussion..), but two to four pages in length. May or may not include the abstract (depends on the journal, conference, dissertation requirements, or competition).
  • Conference abstract: Normally a standalone abstract (up to 500 words), designed to help conference organisers decide whether they would like you to present at the conference. It may follow Unstructured, Structured or Extended abstract forms.
Text type  Journal article, conference submission Thesis dissertation, policy or other business reports, conference submission
Style  Depends on the journal and conference Depends on the discipline, university/business/conference requirements
Audience  Specialised or general?  Specialised or general?
When to write
  • Ideal: Write a rough draft before you start writing the paper. This will guide your writing. Then prepare a final Abstract draft after you complete the paper so that it reflects your research process and your position.
  • Reality: We often write an abstract for a conference before we have written the paper, or even pulled the research together. In this case be sure to write the abstract as an open research question, and do not pre-empt the results.

Adapted from Wallwork, A. English for Writing Research Papers. DOI 10.1007/978-1-4419-7922-3_12, © Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011.

How do I know which type to choose?

Follow the relevant guidelines provided by the journal, the conference organisers, or in the case of your thesis, the Graduate Research Office.

Common complaints about abstracts from HDR examiners/peer reviewers:

The author has written more than 400 words in the abstract and yet has only described the context but not the results of his/her work and the implications.

The abstract doesn’t do justice to what the paper is about. It is too abstruse and dense. It is only understandable after the paper has been read. It should be understandable to a general economics-literate audience, not just to those few researchers within the author’s very specific field.

The authors have failed to state why the scientific community should be interested in their work nor what value is being added to what is already known.

Workshop: Abstracts

The following video explains how to develop a discipline-relevant abstract.

Activity: Abstract analysis

This PDF contains different abstract samples for you to analyse in preparation for writing your own.

Summary template: Nature journal

This summary template comes from the website of high ranking science journal Nature.

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