a scientific article can be an intimidating and challenging task for
first-timers. I vividly recall my first effort. I was initially
overwhelmed with the idea because I was thinking about the entire paper
in the same way an amateur mountaneer might view Mt. Everest: one long
climb to the top. How would I ever reach the summit when I’ve never set
foot on a mountain before?
(Image by Uwe Gille, CC-BY-SA 3.0)
Fortunately, someone suggested to me that I break the job down into
small parts and stop thinking about it as one huge task. They also
suggested that I study published papers to see how each section
was structured and then organize my narrative in a similar way. This
piece of advice—to study the structure and writing style of well-written
articles—helped me enormously, especially in the early days of
preparing research articles for publication.
Over the succeeding years, I periodically “analyzed” papers—those in
high-impact journals as well as those I just enjoyed reading—to discover
ways to improve my own writing. Along the way, I realized that getting
one’s work into top journals depended on how well the paper was written,
in addition to ground-breaking research findings. I thus found it
strange that my professors did not coach students in
improving the quality of their scientific writing. A few professors had
their students analyze papers in courses or lab group discussions, but
the focus was on evaluating the science aspects of the article rather
than the writing.
One section of my scientific papers that I initially did not spend
much time crafting was the abstract. Like many novice writers, I left
the abstract until last and then dashed off a mediocre summary composed
of sentences mostly cut and pasted from the narrative. It was only much
later that I understood the abstract to be one of the most important
components of a scientific paper. The abstract is often the only
section of a paper that is read. More importantly, the abstract can
determine whether a reader downloads and reads the rest of the paper.
Or, in the case of a conference paper, the abstract will determine
whether it is accepted or not for presentation to colleagues. Journal
editors and reviewers and conference organizers pay close attention to
the abstract because it is a good predictor of the quality of the paper.
A poorly written or mediocre abstract says the author is inexperienced
or doesn’t care about quality.
Writing a decent abstract is not difficult…if you know what
information needs to be included and how to structure it. The
presentation embedded below explains how to write an abstract using a
real example of a published abstract. I selected the example from one of
my own publications–not because it’s particularly good, but because
it illustrates some dos and don’ts. And, by using one of my own
publications, I won’t embarrass anyone but myself!
Note that there is audio associated with each slide, so be sure to adjust the volume on your device (here is a direct link in case you cannot see the player window below).
Knowing how to condense a scientific article into a short, coherent
summary is a handy skill that all science professionals should attain.
If you’ve never written an abstract before, this guide should make the
task a bit easier.
How to Write an Abstract for a Scientific Paper | The Scientist Videographer