#STEMSaturdays: How to Write Your Abstract


Conference season is upon us and many are asking for your submissions to be sent already! 


Conferences are an excellent opportunity to share your research with peers in a professional (and sometimes large) setting. Not everyone gets a coveted oral presentation (or poster presentation) spot, so you want to have the best chance of securing one by presenting the committee with a fantastic abstract.


In this post, #STEMSaturdays will be discussing what an abstract is and how to write a good one when preparing for a scientific journal, your own thesis or conference presentation.


What is an abstract?


Good question!


An abstract is a small statement (usually no more than 250 words) that describes your work as a whole. What makes up an abstract varies according to discipline, but they all have to answer the following questions:


  • What was done?
  • Why was it done?
  • How was it done?
  • What were the results?
  • Why should anybody care?


Basically, it contains the scope, purpose, results and contents of the larger work.  


In essence, the abstract is a self-contained mini thesis, and should be able to stand alone and understood separately. The job of an abstract is basically to “sell” your work; that is to say, it’s to make your research enticing enough to go see your talk (or publish it/read it) instead of others. 



Why do I need to even write an abstract?


If your abstract is done well, it will make conference attendees, publishers, and readers want to learn more about your research. Usually for conference proceedings and online search databases, the abstract is usually the only part of the paper that is published.  Abstracts are also a great way to interest funders and have them turn the page and keep reading your proposal!


Writing your abstract: the checklist


I’m a checklist kind of gal. I write checklists for everything to make sure I haven’t missed a single thing; so, of course I have a checklist for writing my abstract. This checklist includes the motivation, problem statement, approach, results, conclusions, and the greater implications. 


Each of these sections is usually one or two sentences long, as you want to keep your abstract concise and to the point. Some parts (i.e. results and conclusions or conclusions and implications) may be merged and therefore spread out to be longer. Here are the breakdowns of each section: 




In this section, one discusses why anyone should care about the problem you present and its results. Is your research going to fill in a practical, scientific gap in your industry? This section can be often merged with the problem statement and it varies on topic whether the problem statement or the motivation should go first. For example, my research is on by-catch numbers in fisheries, but I specifically focus on a small section of that: Chondrichthyan (sharks, skates, rays, and chimaeras) by-catch. For this reason, my problem statement often comes first to indicate the “piece” of the overall larger problem that I’m working on. 


In summary, this section should discuss how important your work is in your field, the problem, and the impact the results may have if successful. 





What problem are you researching? In this section, try not to go overkill on the jargon. If your research is not well known, put your problem statement after your motivation section.




What steps did you take to solve this problem you previously stated? This section is basically a condensed version of your “methods” section, and it must be included in your abstract. 


Questions that must be answered in this section: What did you look at (does your work look at bycatch numbers worldwide or just in the New Zealand region)? How did you collect your data (did you go out and collect it yourself or was it a pre-existing dataset)? How did you streamline your data (did you account for x, y, z)? What was the extent of your research (did you solely use R programming or did you run other statistical models)? What important variables did you control, ignore, or measure? 


Leave nothing out!




What answer(s) did you research yield?  This section usually includes numbers (percentages, proportions, etc.) or statistical analysis figures. Be as precise as you can when it comes to writing about the outcome. This means that one should provide numbers or stats that cannot be easily misinterpreted. What if you submit this abstract to a conference before you are completely done analyzing results? I usually write down what I already have, and conclude with something along the lines of, “Further result analysis will be discussed at the conference.” 





This section and “results” can be merged together; it can also be merged with the implications section as you are basically answering what are the implications of your results here.  


As a result of your research, what did you learn, and what are the larger implications of your results, especially for the problem you identified earlier? While not all research will change the world, make sure that this section shows whether or not your results were significant or an indicator that the path you went on yielded nothing substantial (these results are just as important as “winning” results, I promise you). And finally, can your results be generalizable or specific to just your industry?


Important things to also remember


  • Meet the word count limitation. Some publications have longer word counts than others, but an abstract word count is typically 200–250 words.


  • Major restrictions or limitations on the results should be stated. Use words like “might,” “could,” “may,” and “seem” to explain them. This is especially important when you ended up getting unfavorable results.


  • Use keywords that people looking for your work might use. Be sure that those words (or phrases) are in your abstract, so that they will immediately pop up near the top of any search result.


  • Another use for keywords: assigning your committee. Keywords are great for search results, but may also play a role in assigning the committee or editors who look over your paper. Make sure that your keywords match exactly to the audience you want to be reading/reviewing this. For example, my research that focuses on by-catch will have the words “by-catch,” “elasmobranch,” and “Chondrichthyans” to make sure I get the best reviewers for this specific topic.


For examples of what your abstract should look like, try to models in the fields that are most similar to your research. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a few abstracts of my own to write!


About the Author:

Melissa C Marquez is a marine biologist and science communicator based in New Zealand. She is the founder of the Fins United Initiative.  You can find her twitter here, and support her on Patreon here