Friday, July 10, 2015

Writing Abstracts for Peer-Reviewed Journals

The shape an abstract will take is largely determined by its purpose.
Journal Article Abstracts
When submitting an article to a peer-reviewed journal, the norm is to have either an informative or a structured abstract just before the start of the article.  Informative abstracts are very common in library journals and detail the essence of what the article is going to do.  They are generally one to two paragraphs in length.  Word count varies (study abstracts in the journal you are targeting); it is generally at least 100 words and rarely more than 200.  The abstract should detail the essence of the article, so that readers know what to expect.  Remember the abstract is a synopsis - not the introduction – and should be self contained.  Many readers may not read beyond the abstract.
I find it useful to draft the abstract before beginning writing the article, and after selecting a working title. This helps me focus on what the article is going to do. I refer back to the abstract from time to time to make sure I’m not moving too far away from what I set out to do.  Once I’ve finished drafting the article, I go back and edit/polish the abstract.
  I also find it useful to underline the verbs.  As a reviewer I notice people often use the verb “describe.” Peer-reviewed articles need to go beyond description.  Consider the verbs you use in the abstract.  Here’s a list I’ve drawn up for workshops on academic writing - addresses, analyses, argues, asks, creates, concludes, covers, demonstrates, describes, develops, discusses, elucidates, enhances, evaluates, examines, expands, explains, explores, identifies, maps, outlines, presents, proposes, reports, reviews, shows, suggests, summarises, surveys, synthesizes, touches on. After I underline the verbs I consider them and ask myself am I using the right verb. For example the sentence
This article suggests an academic writing workshop may help librarians develop their writing skills
Is not as strong/forceful as
This article argues that an academic writing workshop helps librarians develop their writing skills
I have used the former rather than the latter in an article, because I don’t have enough evidence to argue that it definitively does help librarians develop their writing skills.
Structured abstracts are very common in STM journals.  While less common for library journals all of the Emerald journals require structured abstracts.  This involves writing the abstract to a set of headings, typically:
Research limitations
Practical Implications
Paper type

This is a good discipline and it can be quite useful to use this template before writing an informative abstract. Writing a structured abstract can be a bit daunting as you consider “What is original about what I am doing?” Bear in mind there are no new topics, just new angles and different contexts.

Emerald provide quite useful guidelines for writing abstracts (both informative and structured).  

Another tip I have found useful, is to give your article three keywords before writing it. Think about what three keywords you would expect to find your article indexed under in a database. This will help you focus on what exactly the article will be about.

Remember, study the abstracts in the journal you are targeting, perhaps modelling your abstract on ones that you fell work really well.

Keep writing and if you haven't started, you might find The Academic Writing Toolkit useful.

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