An abstract is a summary of a longer written document. It is written with the same organization as the original document, usually without “review” or comment. Abstract lengths vary by discipline and purpose of the project; generally, they are 50-100 words for a short paper and 150-200 for a longer one. Abstracts are typically placed prior to the manuscript. Abstracts fall into two categories: indicative and informative.

The indicative abstract covers a less structured document (like a book, essay or editorial). It helps readers to understand the focus, arguments and conclusions of the larger document so that they can determine whether to read it more thoroughly.

An informative abstract is used for more strictly structured documents (like scientific experiments or investigations) and includes the elements of the original research report: its objective, methods, results, and conclusions.

Whichever type of abstract you write, it should be able to stand alone as a statement separate from the larger document.

Components of an Abstract

Abstracts, at heart, are decision-making documents. Based on the abstract, readers decide whether to read your article, support your proposal, grant your funding, or accept you to a conference. To write a successful abstract, you need to include these three components: ContextProblem, and Response (CPR).


By definition, context is essentially what surrounds a thing. In other words, in order to understand a snippet of conversation, we often ask, “He said that in what context?” When we provide context for our readers, we are establishing a comfortable common ground, a shared understanding that provides an entry point into the larger or more specific ideas of our project. Common ground might take the form of a shared belief, a kind of truism, or a basic principle of the field. Frequently this takes the form of a brief survey of the field or an overview of a current situation. This might include what those in the discipline already know to be true, a point of conventional wisdom, something we’ve all seen and heard, a primary text, a case study, or an anecdote of some kind. 


The problem is essentially establishing a deficit. A deficit in this sense refers to a gap in knowledge or what might be misunderstood or overlooked. The problem is what our research question or project is trying to solve. This might be, for example, a practical question (how can we best distribute H1N1 vaccine?) or it can be a theoretical or conceptual question (to what degree is marital behavior determined by intergenerational influences?). As researchers, we begin with the problem, but often by the time we are ready to write our abstracts, introductions, or proposals, the problem has moved into the background, obscured by the details of our work. However, in terms of meeting the reader’s needs, the problem is an essential and necessary feature. The reader’s level of investment, and thus the grade, the acceptance, the funding for your project hinges upon how successfully you articulate the problem. 


This is generally your summary or description of your paper or project, which you position in dialogue with the problem as you’ve established it. Depending on the nature of your project, in your response you might explicitly state your main point or thesis, or you might present your hypothesis and generalize your results. In addition, research that relies on primary data often includes an abbreviated description of the methodology used. 

The ABCs of a Good Abstract

  • Accuracy: Include only information included in the original document.
  • Brevity: Get straight to the point, use precise language, and do not include superfluous adjectives.
  • Clarity: Do not use unnecessary technical jargon, colloquialisms or obscure vocabulary and detail and always explain any acronyms.

Abstracts are challenging because they require decisions about what constitutes that essence of a document full of important information. Here are some tips to help you:

  • Write the final version of your abstract after your paper is completed so the organization and development of the two documents match.
  • Begin with a topic sentence: what is this paper about?
  • Use an outline to confirm that you are summarizing the most important information.
  • Incorporate keywords for electronic retrieval into the text. (They may also be listed at the end of the abstract text.) Bibliographic references and graphics are typically excluded from an abstract.

Keep your readers in mind as you develop the abstract:

  • Assume that they are generally familiar with the information being abstracted but are interested in evaluating the usefulness of the entire document for their research.
  • Write in a concise and readable style so that they can read through the abstract quickly to ascertain the essence of the larger document.
  • Provide information in each sentence; for example, if it is important enough to include, “a cost was given,” it is appropriate to give the specifics: “The cost was $5.25 per gallon.”

Sample Abstracts

Example 1

Variation Among Isolates of Fusarium Circinatum in Tolerance of the Anti-fungal Metabolite BOA

Amir Begovic

Fusarium circinatum is a fungal pathogen responsible for a disease affecting pines known as pitch canker. Although this is what F. circinatum is notorious for, recent work has shown that this fungus also can colonize grasses. However, the importance of grasses as a resource in the life history of F. circinatum is unknown. To learn more about how well adapted F. circinatum is to exploitation of grass hosts, the present study was undertaken to determine how well this fungus can tolerate anti-fungal compounds produced by corn, a member of the grass family. To this end, plates of PDA (potato dextrose agar) were amended with various concentrations of BOA (2-benzoxazolinone), and inoculated with a colonized agar plug of F. circinatum. All tested strains failed to grow at concentrations of 0.75 and 1.0 mg of BOA per ml of medium. Colonized plugs transferred from plates containing BOA to PDA without BOA did not grow, indicating the fungus was killed by exposure to this anti-fungal compound. The same strains were able to survive exposure to 0.5 mg of BOA per ml, although growth was strongly inhibited. The next step will be to test for heritable variation in tolerance of BOA in F. circinatum. (197 words)

Source: University of California, Davis 2013 Undergraduate Research Symposium 

Example 2

Connecting the U.S. Media: A Network Analysis of Mutual Fund Ownership in Communication Corporations

Grace A. Benefield

Social scientists have long been interested in the ever increasing concentration and effects of computer, telecommunication and media corporations, such as Google, Apple and Verizon. By gathering statistics on mutual fund and individual stock owners, the study compares the proportion of institutional investment across communication corporations, which are service or technology corporations responsible for the exchange of information. The research incorporates network analysis software to identify outliers and central players in this web of media owners. The study seeks to measure centrality as a connection between two companies and their investors' similar interest investments, such as a similarity in size, expectations for growth, company values, or industrial interests. Surprisingly, the study finds that market capitalization did not result in centrality, such as IBM's peripheral status. The results find that smaller telecommunications companies, such as Sprint and Comcast, share a large portion of the same mutual funds. In contrast, other industries appear to have intermixed and varietal institutional owners. There are also indications of mutual fund interest groupings based on geography, as in west coast companies Disney, HP, and Qualcomm. Further research is needed to compare the individual stock owners who control large interests in various companies. (196 words)

Source: University of California, Davis 2013 Undergraduate Research Symposium