The Annual UNCG Regional Mathematics and Statistics Conference

The 12th Annual UNCG RMSC, Friday and Saturday, November 11-12, 2016

How To Write an Abstract

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Also, please see this MAA guide or this guide for more information.

What is an abstract?

An abstract is a one-paragraph summary of a research project. Abstracts precede papers in research journals and appear in programs of scholarly conferences. In journals, the abstract allows readers to quickly grasp the purpose and major ideas of a paper and lets other researchers know whether reading the entire paper will be worthwhile. In conferences, the abstract is the advertisement that the paper deserves the audience's attention.

Why write an abstract?

The abstract allows readers to make decisions about your project. Your sponsoring professor can use the abstract to decide if your research is proceeding smoothly. The conference organizer uses it to decide if your project fits the conference criteria. The conference audience (faculty, administrators, peers, and presenters' families) uses your abstract to decide whether or not to attend your presentation. Your abstract needs to take all these readers into consideration.

How does an abstract appeal to such a broad audience?

The audience for this abstract covers the broadest possible scope--from expert to lay person. You need to find a comfortable balance between writing an abstract that both shows your knowledge and yet is still comprehensible--with some effort--by lay members of the audience. Limit the amount of technical language you use and explain it where possible. Always use the full term before you refer to it by acronym [DNA double-stranded breaks (DSBs), for example]. Remember that you are yourself an expert in the field that you are writing about--don't take for granted that the reader will share your insider knowledge.

What should the abstract include?

Think of your abstract as a condensed version of your whole project. By reading it, the reader should understand the nature of your research question. Like abstracts that researchers prepare for scholarly conferences, the abstract you submit for the Undergraduate Research Conference will most likely reflect work still in progress at the time you write it. Although the content will vary according to field and specific project, all abstracts, whether in the sciences or the humanities, convey the following information:

  • The purpose of the project identifying the area of study to which it belongs.
  • The research problem that motivates the project.
  • The methods used to address this research problem, documents or evidence analyzed.
  • The conclusions reached or, if the research is in progress, what the preliminary results of the investigation suggest, or what the research methods demonstrate.
  • The significance of the research project. Why are the results useful? What is new to our understanding as the result of your inquiry?

Whatever kind of research you are doing, your abstract should provide the reader with answers to the following questions: What are you asking? Why is it important? How will you study it? What will you use to demonstrate your conclusions? What are those conclusions? What do they mean?

Stylistic considerations

The abstract should be one paragraph and should not exceed the word limit. Edit it closely to be sure it meets the Four C's of abstract writing:

  • Complete — it covers the major parts of the project.
  • Concise — it contains no excess wordiness or unnecessary information.
  • Clear — it is readable, well organized, and not too jargon-laden.
  • Cohesive — it flows smoothly between the parts.

The importance of understandable language

Because all researchers hope their work will be useful to others, and because good scholarship is increasingly used across disciplines, it is crucial to make the language of your abstracts accessible to a non-specialist. Simplify your language. Friends in another major will spot instantly what needs to be more understandable. Some problem areas to look for:

  • Eliminate jargon. Showing off your technical vocabulary will not demonstrate that your research is valuable. If using a technical term is unavoidable, add a non-technical synonym to help a non-specialist infer the term's meaning.
  • Omit needless words—redundant modifiers, pompous diction, excessive detail.
  • Avoid stringing nouns together (make the relationship clear with prepositions).
  • Eliminate "narration," expressions such as "It is my opinion that," "I have concluded," "the main point supporting my view concerns," or "certainly there is little doubt as to. . . ." Focus attention solely on what the reader needs to know.

Before submitting your abstract

  • Make sure it is within 150-200 words. (Over-writing is all too easy, so reserve time for cutting your abstract down to the essential information.)
  • Make sure the language is understandable by a non-specialist. (Avoid writing for an audience that includes only you and your professor.)
  • Have your sponsoring professor work with you and approve the abstract before you submit it online.