Writing a good scientific abstract

Writing a good scientific abstract shouldn’t drive the medical writer to distraction

There are many aspects the medical writer needs to consider when writing medical and scientific manuscripts, but one of the most challenging is when it comes to writing the abstract. Although typically the shortest part of the paper, the abstract receives a disproportionate amount of attention for its size, and is used to make decisions about the value of medical research that far outweigh the emphasis placed upon it when writing the manuscript.

For the medical writer or investigator, it is important to remember that the abstract helps other medical writers and researchers decide whether the paper is relevant to their work. In addition, medical writers and researchers use abstracts, particularly when searching an online database such as PubMed, to decide on which papers to get.

Abstracts may be written either by the people writing the main body of the manuscript, whether a medical writer or a member of the research team, but a professional medical writing service is often used to write the abstract.

Written last, the abstract is meant to summarise the paper, and it is a good idea to pull out key sentences as you write or go through the main manuscript. Once you have put them together in the same order, this will help later when it comes to writing the abstract.

It sounds obvious, but all the sentences of the abstract must support the concept of the study, the findings obtained, and the interpretation of the findings, as found in the main body of the paper. The abstract and the title should also be in agreement in terms of their meaning, and keywords that will help researchers to find the paper in an online database should be included.

When it comes to actually writing the abstract, the traditional sentence structure for a scientific or medical abstract is:

  • Sentence one: Introduce the topic of the paper
  • Sentence two: Summarise the previous work in this area
  • Sentence three: Point out the deficiencies of the previous work
  • Sentence four: Describe how you tackled the topic
  • Sentence five: Set out the main results of your study
  • Sentence six: Discuss the impact of your findings

This structure is not always necessary, despite it being a helpful way of thinking about your work. Nevertheless, the last sentence on the list does perhaps sums up the main challenge of writing a good abstract – that you are expected to be able to summarise months of research, thousands of pieces of data, and pages and pages of manuscript in one pithy sentence that will allow readers to grasp instantly the full impact and weight of your work!

To help you, here are a few useful “do”s and “don’t”s when it comes to abstract writing:

 

 

  • Do count your words – the majority of journals specify that the abstract should be between 150 and 300 words, which is about the right length to get your message across effectively.
  • Do write in the past tense, and be clear and to be point – abstracts should be precise, concise and incisive.
  • Do structure your abstract – the majority of journals specify a variation on the IMRAD format of Introduction, Method, Results and Discussion for their abstracts. While not all journals require such a defined structure, it is worth bearing in mind that the concept of stating the purpose, methodology, major findings and your interpretation of the findings in consecutive sentences is a useful model and helps you to be clear in your arguments.

 

 

  • Do not include references to other papers – an abstract should not contain citations.
  • Do not leave abbreviations left undefined – even an abbreviation that is commonplace to you should always be defined the first time that it is used. This is especially important as so many medical and more general abbreviations have more than one word or phrase to which they can refer.
  • Do not put information into the abstract that is not contained somewhere within the main body of the text.

We hope that these tips will be usefull to you as you prepare your next abstract. Please feel free to share any additional tips by using the comment function below.

Our medical writers can put together an effective and compelling abstract that brings attention to your work and make sure that it has the impact that it deserves. Our medical writing services will help you to get your research findings published – and read. If you need any medical writing support, then please call +41 43 508 03 13 to discover more. Or email us here.

About Frank Waaga

Frank has a passion for medical communications and over 12 years of experience providing professional and reliable support to product teams in the pharmaceutical, biotech and medical device industry.
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