Writing a Research Paper Abstract: Overviewing Your Paper

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A research paper abstract is essentially a summary of your paper. Within the abstract, you identify the main points of your paper. It is neither an evaluation of your paper or an excerpt from a portion of your paper; an abstract is an original text that includes keywords.

Your instructor may assign a research paper abstract as part of your assignment. This general summary allows you to identify and expand on the major aspects of your paper. Most abstracts are between 100-500 words, depending on the type of abstract used, the length and scope of your paper or a specific type requested by your instructor.

There are three basic types of research paper abstracts:

  • Descriptive abstract
  • Informative abstract
  • Critical abstract

Descriptive research paper abstract

A descriptive research paper abstract shows the type of information contained within your paper. Often considered more like an outline of a research paper, this type of abstract is generally very brief at 100 words or less, and it follows the below guidelines:

  • It does not make any judgments about your paper.
  • It does not include any results or conclusions.
  • It does include keywords used in the paper.
  • It can include the scope of your research, the purpose and the methods, but this is optional.

Informative research paper abstract

The informative research paper abstract does more than simply describe your paper, and this type is the most common abstract. Usually no more than 300 words, an informative abstract follows the below guidelines:

  • It does not critique or evaluate your paper.
  • It includes the information that would appear in a descriptive abstract (scope, purpose, methods).
  • It includes the results, conclusions and recommendations of your research.
  • It serves as a succinct, shorter stand-in for your paper.

Critical research paper abstract

In a critical research paper abstract, you evaluate and compare your paper to other written research on the same topic. Given the subjective nature of this type of abstract, it is used very rarely. Usually between 400-500 words because of the additional information and evaluation, a critical abstract uses the following guidelines:

  • It describes the major findings and key information.
  • It include judgments and/or comments regarding completeness, reliability and validity (when primary research is the focus).

Writing a research paper abstract

As you write an abstract, there are a few stylistic considerations:

  • Write in the active voice whenever possible (the nature of the abstract may require more passive sentences, however).
  • Use concise writing and short sentences.
  • Make your point quickly.
  • Use the past tense when writing about research that is already complete.

In addition, you always want to write your abstract after your paper is complete. This means waiting until after you have done a final proofreading and finalized your paper – a research paper abstract is a summary of your paper, so you need the complete picture your final draft represents. Also ensure every piece of information in your abstract coincides with your paper. Do not offer new information or make statements in the abstract that are not in agreement with the paper itself.

A good way to create the first draft of a research paper abstract is to start by taking whole sentences or keywords from each section within your paper. Keep the information in the same order, and then edit/revise it into a concise, cohesive abstract.

Finally, your abstract should not include any of the following:

  • Extensive background information
  • Mentions of other research
  • Jargon, abbreviations or confusing terms
  • Definitions of terms
  • Images, tables, figures, diagrams or any references to them
  • Sentences with an elliptical (…)
  • Incomplete sentences

Why writing a good research paper abstract is important

Ultimately, the purpose of writing a research paper abstract is to give readers the key information about your paper to allow them to decide if they want to read the entire paper. Because of this, you want your abstract to include enough information. Evaluate your abstract by looking at it critically and asking if you were a researcher interested in the paper and could only see the abstract, not the entire paper, could you get the whole picture about it? If you cannot answer yes to that question, revise your abstract to include the proper information.