In this installment of our Lab Reports and Scientific Papers series, we shift the focus to lab report formatting and the overall organization of information.
In many fields of research, a report, essay, or study begins with an abstract. An abstract is meant to sell your work; it should explain the topic of your paper, the problem your research is trying to solve or the question you are trying to answer, how you went about doing this, and the conclusion you reached. Writing an abstract is an important part of publishing your research, and you should make the effort to make this portion of your paper detailed and well-written. Many people do not realize the importance of abstracts and of knowing how to write an abstract properly.
The benefits of writing an abstract
Writing an abstract is necessary for any written research that will appear in a database, as this is what is used when a search is performed. It should generally be somewhere in the range of 100–250 words and use as many of the keywords from your paper as possible, as databases will take the most common words to index material. So, if you are writing a paper about the effects of land development on caribou conservation efforts in the Canadian Arctic, your keywords might include caribou, conservation, and Canadian Arctic. Knowing how to write a thorough, descriptive abstract allows more people to find and utilize your research, and using appropriate keywords helps others in their own search for information.
To begin writing an abstract, you do not want to simply repeat verbatim the thesis of your work or the introduction from your paper. Because you are trying to sell your paper in so few words, keep your sentences concise and make sure that all the information you include is relevant. First, mention as specifically as possible what the topic of your research is. What is the problem or question you are trying to answer? Next, briefly explain your methodology. How did you go about trying to solve this problem or question? What experiments or research did you use to reach your conclusion? Finally, what were the results of whatever methods you used to prove or disprove your hypothesis? These are the main questions you should ask yourself when considering how to write an abstract.
In terms of style, you should make sure to use the active voice where possible—so, instead of saying "it was tested by the study," you should say "the study tested." Many common style guides have specific formatting guidelines for writing an abstract; for example, APA style requires an abstract to appear on its own page, separated from the main body of research. A quick Internet search on "how to write an abstract" will quickly find you this information, but if you are writing for a specific journal or school, be sure to check the preferred style guide.
Types of abstracts
There are different types of abstracts that are appropriate for different types of work, something that should be considered when you are writing an abstract. A descriptive abstract simply describes the research without passing judgment on the outcome or on the work itself. This type of abstract will not include the conclusion of the research and should be thought of as a general outline of the topic of a paper and of how this topic was studied. A descriptive abstract is often short—around the 100-word mark.
In contrast, an informative abstract goes beyond a simple description and provides an explanation of your thesis, results, and the main evidence for your topic. Make sure to use clear and concise language and the same technical wording that might be found in your actual research. You should try to avoid acronyms and abbreviations that must be explained, because these will take up unnecessary space in your abstract.
Once it's written . . .
Finally, it is important to revise your abstract and have it properly edited and proofread. Knowing how to write an abstract will put you on the path to success, but when your abstract is the first information a reader will encounter when searching for you research, it is important that the language is correct and persuasive, the style exact, and the information concise.
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