Criteria for Success
- General Background. Something that everyone in your audience cares about.
- Specific Background. Zoom in from the thing everyone cares about to the thing you did.
- Statement of Problem or Knowledge Gap. What specific problem or phenomenon do we not understand in this field of study?
- Here we show. One sentence about what you learned or did, and how that fulfills the demonstrated gap.
- Approach & Results. Only the very highest-level methodology results.
- Implications. What do your results mean for the thing everyone cares about?
Your abstract is your sales pitch for your work. When browsing a journal, very few readers get beyond the title and abstract for any article. If you haven’t convinced your reader by the end of the abstract that your work is interesting and relevant, you’ve lost the opportunity to convert them from curious browser to dedicated reader. The same goes for folks deciding which talks and posters to see at a busy conference.
In only a few hundred words—or, from your audience’s perspective, a few minutes of reading time—you must:
- convince your reader that your work is addressing an authentic, pressing problem in science or engineering,
- convey the essence of your results,
- explain what those results mean for the state of the field and for future work.
Analyze your Audience
Most people will take take only seconds to minutes to skim your abstract in order to decide whether they actually want to learn more about your work.
Start from a place that your entire audience can understand. For a specialized audience, you could lead with “High cycle fatigue usage of the reactor vessel internals is dominated by analytic flow induced vibration loads due to random turbulence and reactor coolant pump resonant acoustic loads.” For journals with broader readership, you would need to start with something everyone cares about, say, “Design of certain nuclear power plant components is limited by uncertainty of calculated coolant flow vibration loads.”
Don’t rely on technical names; explain what something is or why it matters for your work. If by “fully ceramic microencapsulated fuel” you really mean “accident tolerant fuel,” just say “accident tolerant fuel.” Rather than “316 stainless steel,” you might say “a corrosion-resistant steel (type 316).” In this way, you speak to the general audience (who can understand “corrosion-resistant steel”) and to your specialist peers (who would ask, “Which corrosion-resistant steel?”).
Be critical of any jargon you include, and remove any that is not essential to conveying your high-level message. Consider asking a friend in a different lab to read over your abstract and point out any terms that obscure your meaning.
Use the standard abstract formula
Every successful abstract has seven components – as seen in the structure diagram above. Every component should only have a few sentences.