WHAT IS AN ABSTRACT?
James R. Ebert
Department of Earth Sciences
State University of New York, College at Oneonta
Oneonta, New York 13820-4015
An abstract is a brief summary of the most important points in a scientific paper. Abstracts enable professionals to stay current with the huge volume of scientific literature. Students have misconceptions about the nature of abstracts that may be described as the “table of contents” or “introduction” syndromes. There are several ways to tell if you’ve written an abstract or not.
It has been observed that the quantity of our scientific knowledge increases at an exponential rate. How is it possible for scientists, students or anyone to keep up with this increase? If a sedimentologist, for example, were to read every paper published in a single year in the Journal of Sedimentary Research, Sedimentology, Sedimentary Geology, Geology, the GSA Bulletin, the AAPG Bulletin, etc. she or he would have no time to conduct any research! Abstracts are crucial components in the battle to keep abreast of one’s field.
Nature and function of an abstract
If you examine any paper in a professional journal, such as the GSA Bulletin, and you will see that each paper begins with an abstract. So, what is an abstract?
An abstract is a brief synopsis or summary of the most important points that the author makes in the paper. It is a highly condensed version of the paper itself. After reading the abstract, the reader knows the main points that the authors have to make. The reader can then evaluate the significance of the paper and then decide whether or not she or he wishes to read the full paper. If one elects to read the full paper, further detail is given about each of the significant topics, but no new topics of importance are introduced. If one decides not to read the paper, that decision is based on a knowledge of the paper’s content.
Although the abstract appears first in a paper, it is generally the last part written. Only after the paper has been completed can the authors decide what should be in the abstract and what parts are supporting detail.
Common misconceptions about abstracts
Student misconceptions abound on the nature of abstracts. Perhaps the two most common misconceptions are that the abstract is a table of contents or an introduction. An abstract is neither of these. Just because it appears first in a paper does not mean that it is an integral part of the paper. Abstracts should be able to stand alone.
The “table of contents” syndrome is marked by statements such as these: “This paper will examine..., “following this I will describe... “, ” the last section of the paper will address...”, etc.. If what you have written includes such statements, chances are you have not written an abstract.
The “introduction” misconception is also common. If you have statements such as these, you have probably written an introduction and not an abstract: “One of the most important events in geologic history...”, The XYZ Formation is found in central Podunk County and is a fascinating unit.”, “However, before we examine these characteristics, we must look closer at the origins...”, etc..
How can you tell if what you have written is an abstract or not? Ask yourself the following questions: Does my abstract summarize all the most important points in my paper? If someone reads my abstract will they get all the main points that I want to make in the paper? Does my abstract stand alone or does it lead to other parts of the paper? If the latter is true, chances are good that you have not written an abstract.
An abstract is a critical part of a scientific paper. It summarizes the most significant points in the paper. By doing so, it enables the reader to evaluate the nature and significance of the work and therefore decide whether or not to read the whole paper.