Introduction

An abstract functions as a hook. It encourages readers to look at the rest of your paper or come to your talk at a conference. While the stakes are high, the good news is that there is a simple formula for writing an effective abstract. Your abstract will vary depending on the audience, so customize it  (including the background and implications) to maximize its effectiveness. Check out the annotated example to see what an effective abstract could look like.

Criteria for Success

  1. Motivating Background. Start with something everyone in your audience cares about. Narrow down to the specific context of your work.
  2. Statement of Problem or Knowledge Gap. Why your work needed to be done.
  3. Task performed. What work you did to address this need.
  4. Results and conclusions. A (brief) summary of the findings of your work. How your work affects the problem statement or knowledge gap.
  5. Implications. What your results mean for the background everyone cares about. Future work that could be done.

Structure Diagram

Purpose

The purpose of an abstract is to help an audience member decide if your document or presentation matches their interest.  Your abstract should quickly communicate to a reader what they will find in your work regarding your general research area, your methods and results, and the implications of your work.  In order to help the most people, you should include information from all of these categories as concisely as possible.

Analyze Your Audience

Your audience can be very diverse, including those very familiar with your work (collaborators or peers) and those wholly unfamiliar with the topic (researchers working outside their field).  Think about who the average members of your audience are and what they know about your subject.  Start from a place that your entire audience can understand, but include enough technical detail to satisfy an expert.

Most people will take only minutes to skim your abstract and decide whether they want to learn more, so keep it short and use a familiar structure.  Begin with a background and end with implications so readers can quickly orient themselves with your work.

Skills

Motivating Background

To keep from confusing non-expert readers, be sure to give context to your abstract. Replace jargon with descriptions wherever possible (18-8 SS vs. corrosion resistant steel). Ask a friend in a different lab to read over your abstract and point out any terms that obscure your meaning.

Experts can understand Broad audience can understand
High cycle fatigue usage of the reactor vessel internals is dominated by analytic flow induced vibration loads due to turbulence and reactor coolant pump resonant acoustic loads. Design of some nuclear power plant components is limited by vibration forces caused by coolant flow.  These forces are primarily caused by turbulence and acoustic resonances from the coolant pump.
Rhenium and osmium precipitates below the solubility limit dominate embrittlement in tungsten under tokamak conditions above 1 dpa. The lifetime of tungsten-based components in a fusion power plant will be limited by embrittlement due to neutron exposure. At higher doses (>1dpa), embrittlement is largely caused by the production of secondary phases containing rhenium and osmium.

Statement of Problem

Motivate your work by identifying a gap in scientific knowledge.  This gap can be a lack of understanding or an inability to solve a problem. What question do we want to answer? This should be more focused in scope than your background section.

Example background Example problem
CRUD can cause accelerated corrosion to fuel cladding, greater exposure risk to plant workers, and cause an imbalance in core power distribution A model of the physics of CRUD heat transfer, chemistry, and two-phase flow would allow mitigation of these detrimental effects in reactors
The high heat, particle, and radiation fluxes that will be imposed on the plasma facing components of a future fusion reactor create a harsh environment for materials…. A technique for measuring the dynamics of plasma-exposed surfaces is needed to give a more complete understanding of future fusion reactors

Task

Describe what it is you do to solve this problem. Your task should follow naturally from your stated problem.  If it does not, consider changing the scope of your problem. Typical statements include:

  • Simulate the … of …
  • Measured the effect of … on …
  • Designed a … to test …

Results

Quickly give the key results from this work, focusing in on the results vital to your central message.  Save the fine details for the main document. All of your results should relate back to your background. How did your work help resolve the problem or knowledge gap?

Implication

Tell your reader how your results fit into the larger picture. This should address what you mentioned at the beginning of your background. Are there follow-up questions that future work could answer?

Download Annotated Examples