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.
- So what? 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 have to
- 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 learn more about your work.
Start from a place that your entire audience can understand. For a specialized audience, you could lead with “Heterotrophic bacteria in the hypolimnia of dimictic lakes in Martin County modulate allochthonous carbon deposition.” For journals with broader readership, you would need to start with something everyone cares about, say, “Microbes in lakes are critical to controlling greenhouse gas emission and water quality.”
Don’t rely on technical names; explain what something is or why it matters for your work. If by “gamma immunoglobulin” you really mean “antibody”, just say “antibody”. Rather than “16S rRNA”, you might say “a bacterial taxonomic marker gene (16S rRNA)”. In this way, you speak to the general audience (who can understand “bacterial taxonomic marker gene”) and to your specialist peers (who would ask, “Which taxonomic marker gene?”).
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 six components. Use the Criteria for Success above! Every component should only have a few sentences.