By Maria Tsapali, Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge
As the comic suggests, it is a common occurrence in academic circles to encounter vague and ambiguous abstracts both in journal articles and conference papers. It is easy to fall in this trap but we need to resist the temptation and make the abstract as little abstract as possible. But how can we actually achieve this? In this post I will share my personal abstract rules that I developed through my extensive experience with academic writing and reviewing.
As Kaleidoscope co-chair for two consecutive years (2015/2016, 2016/2017) and current CORERJ editor-in-Chief, I have been involed in the reviewing of many conference abstracts and journal papers, which has permitted me to further develop the templates reviewers use to assess the submissions. Moreover, I have served as a reviewer for professional bodies (BERA conference and CERP journal) and have run abstract writing and reviewing workshops for graduate students. Learning how to write a good abstract is a valuable academic skill that many of us will use throughout our academic life. Based on my experience thus far, I have created a list of DOs and DON’Ts when it comes to abstract writing. The list can be of use not only for those who are writing abstracts but also for those who are involved in reviewing them.
- Always include a few introductory sentences to give the context of the research and a very brief summary of previous research in the field.
- Include a statement on why your work is innovative/original, emphasising the literature gap it is filling.
- Clearly state the research aim/questions.
- Include a few lines on methodology and the research design that was utilised.
- Present the most prominent finding(s) even if your research is at a preliminary stage. If you have no results, you can talk about what you expect your results to show.
- Close with a sentence showing the potential implication of your work.
The points made in the DOs can also be used as a step-by-step guide to follow when writing an academic abstract, since if you follow the steps, you will have a first working draft in a few minutes. If you find this helpful or not, please leave any feedback in the comments section below.
- Make grammar mistakes and typos. Make sure you proof-read your abstract and send it to a couple of friends or colleagues before submitting it.
- Omit important information. Try not to omit any of the parts discussed in the DOs list. Each one of them is equally important and necessary.
- Be ambiguous when stating the focus of the abstract. Make sure that you explain in a clear and concise way what the aim of your work is.
- Use undefined key terms. Don’t use jargon and unnecessary abbreviations in the abstract. Make sure you know your audience and explain appropriately all the academic terms you are using.
- Forget to make links with the conference theme. Make sure you explain how your work is relevant and fits the theme of the conference. This rule mainly applies to conference and not journal papers.
- Go over the word limit. It is called word limit for a reason; long abstracts discourage reviewers from reading them.
I developed this list based on an analysis of reviewer comments that I conducted on the reviews that we received for Kaleidoscope 2017 conference abstracts. I was particularly interested in finding out what the common mistakes are for graduate students submitting abstracts to conferences. Since research has become a second nature to me by my 3rd year of the PhD, I couldn’t resist conducting a thematic analysis on reviewers’ comments. The sample consisted of 40 reviews of 20 abstracts that the reviewers thought required changes before acceptance. Here is a small graph showing the frequency of the DON’Ts, for those of you who felt their inner researcher awakening on the sound of thematic analysis.
The most important piece of advice I can offer, however, is to write and review as many abstracts as possible. I would like to encourage graduate students to get involved in reviewing and writing from an early stage in their academic careers. The Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge gives plenty of opportunities to gain this experience, for example through CORERJ and Kaleidoscope. The Cambridge Open-Review Educational Research e-Journal (CORERJ) is a higher-degree student-led initiative that highlights on-going and completed work from early career researchers in the field of education. Kaleidoscope is an annual two-day conference hosted by research students at the Faculty of Education. Through my involvement in both institutions, I have built confidence in reviewing for professional organisations and have gained valuable insight on the reviewing process that has in turn helped me improve my academic writing style. Similar opportunities are available at other universities.
And remember writing an abstract is a form of art after all.
Maria Tsapali is a third-year PhD student at the Faculty of Education and Gonville and Caius College and an Onassis Foundation scholar. Her PhD work looks at the effects of different learning environments on primary school students’ decision making skills. Her research interests include learning sciences, cognitive psychology and science education and she is part of the INSTRUCT lab. Apart from managing CORERJ journal as Editor-in-chief in 2017-18, she served as the co-chair for Kaleidoscope conference for two consecutive years. In her spare time, she enjoys abstract photography. You can follow Maria on Twitter or e-mail her at: firstname.lastname@example.org