Writing an Abstract: Disambiguation and Introduction

Abstract art

Abstract is not only a school of creative arts. Many academics writing for publication are expected to submit their work with an abstract. Others are asked to submit an abstract before they start writing, perhaps to win a research grant, maybe to gain approval for their research topics from professors and examiners, in other cases to receive the go-ahead from a publisher. Finally, a conference presentation is often introduced with an abstract sent to the organizers for approval.

Those are all different things, though, right? So, what is an abstract? The word originates in the Latin abstractus, meaning ‚drawn off‘, thus taken out of, but there seem to be several definitions even when it comes to academic writing.

A few relevant dictionary definitions are:
6. a summary of a text, scientific article, document, speech, etc.; epitome.
7. something that concentrates in itself the essential qualities of anything more extensive or more general, or of several things; essence. (https://www.dictionary.com/browse/abstract?s=t)


2.1: a summary of points (as of a writing) usually presented in skeletal form
also : something that summarizes or concentrates the essentials of a larger thing or several things (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/abstract)

Perhaps more usefully, some definitions from writing centers at English-speaking universities:

… a self-contained, short, and powerful statement that describes a larger work. Components vary according to discipline. An abstract of a social science or scientific work may contain the scope, purpose, results, and contents of the work. An abstract of a humanities work may contain the thesis, background, and conclusion of the larger work. An abstract is not a review, nor does it evaluate the work being abstracted. While it contains key words found in the larger work, the abstract is an original document rather than an excerpted passage. (https://writingcenter.unc.edu/tips-and-tools/abstracts/)

…. a stand-alone text, approximately 200-300 words, that provides a snapshot of your whole thesis. (https://student.unsw.edu.au/writing-abstracts-honours-theses)

Possibly the best way to be sure what is involved when you are asked to write an abstract is to take a closer look at the requirements for the assignment. Fortunately, some professors and lecturers are accustomed to giving detailed requirements. Here is an example (thanks to Prof. Andrew Bergerson of the University of Missouri!):

So this kind of abstract is more of a research proposal, that is, a paper which presents research still to be done. This should convey the main idea, research question and core thesis or message of the paper and the ways in which the author intends to research and present those. 

At some institutions, there are writing centers that provide details of other kinds, which can give you a good idea of what is expected by the instructors there, or even by publishers. According to the Writing Centre at the University of Adelaide, A good abstract:

* uses one well-developed paragraph that is coherent and concise, and is able to stand alone as a unit of information

* covers all the essential academic elements of the full-length paper, namely the background, purpose, focus, methods, results and conclusions

* contains no information not included in the paper

The website for academic writing Scribbr offers similar a similar explanation:

An abstract is a short summary of a longer work (such as a dissertation or research paper). The abstract concisely reports the aims and outcomes of your research so that readers know exactly what the paper is about.

But here we are already getting into practical advice of how to tackle the problem of writing such an abstract. For more information on that, check out the upcoming post on when and how to write your abstract in English.