If it is hard to give an adequate explanation of our research in a normal abstract, then it is even more challenging to write an “abridged abstract” or “brief blurb” of the kind that is increasingly being used by publishers and conference organisers. Many journals now require authors to submit a short summary or blurb for their article, which will be used to accompany the article’s title on a webpage, or to generate a short feed that they can send out to subscribers. For example, the PLOS (Public Library of Science) suite of journals asks authors for a blurb of no more than 30 words to go on the contents page of their online journals. Along similar lines, conference organisers are asking for increasingly succinct abstracts, so that the programme does not expand beyond reasonable limits – many large congresses in the USA now ask delegates to submit a 50-word abstract for their papers.
So how can we compress countless hours of research and reflection into 30-50 words? Two useful pieces of advice come from the PLOS suite itself, which suggests that the abstract “should, without exaggeration, entice people to read your manuscript”. In other words, think of one reason why your research is important/reliable/innovative, and make sure that you highlight this feature. If you look at the following example, you will observe that it highlights the importance of the problem that is being addressed by identifying it as “a serious threat”:
- Rabies has been a serious public health threat in Flores Island, Indonesia since it was introduced in 1997. The objective of this paper is to identify risk factors associated with the uptake of rabies control measures by individual dog owners in Flores Island. (43 words)
The second example, below, illustrates a different way to promote one’s own research:
- Despite the common belief that sensory stimuli matter, little research has explored how such specific shapes can affect consumers’ evaluations of brand extension fit. Using experiments, this research shows that specific geometric shapes can affect consumer perceptions for dissimilar brand extensions. (42 words)
In this case, the writer has chosen to emphasize the “research gap”, and to show how his/her research supplies new knowledge about a neglected area.
Another piece of advice provided by PLOS is that the “blurb” should not be redundant with the title. That means that you should consider how the abstract and the title complement each other. For example, your blurb might be:
- Serological data and mathematical modelling reveal key aspects of the human immune system’s response to seasonal influenza infection. (19 words)
In this case, it would make no sense to use a title like “Modelling the immune response to seasonal influenza”, because this just repeats the information given in the blurb. The author of this blurb actually decided to choose a more eye-catching title for the article: “Learning about influenza from the mark it leaves behind”.
Finally, another idea that might be useful is to consider what important parts of the article you want to mention. Researchers have found that when writing abridged abstracts, researchers are likely to try to include the Purpose, Method and Results of their study (Sancho Guinda, 2014). The following example manages to combine elements of all three of these:
- This study explores the message strategies employed by advertisers for children’s products in US children’s magazines, using Taylor’s six-segment strategy wheel as its theoretical framework. We examined 531 ads from three different children’s magazines published in 2010-12. Content analysis reveals that advertisers use more transformational approaches than informational approaches. (50 words)
However, this is a challenge, and it might be more practical to focus specifically on the results, as this author did:
- Five studies, using real consumption and taste rating as dependent measures, show that preschoolers (3-5.5 years old) infer that food that is instrumental to achieving health or intellectual goals is less tasty, and therefore they consume less of it, compared to presenting the food with a neutral or taste frame. (50 words)
One last idea is that in the pressure to compress information, we should not forget to “advertise” our research. The following values are thought to make a piece of research more “marketable”: importance, effectiveness, newness, breadth of scope, applicability and reliability. By adding just one adjective to our abstract, we can make it sound more attractive and interesting to potential readers. An “innovative project” sounds more exciting than a “project”, and a “robust design” seems more trustworthy than a “design”.
For further information and examples, see:
Sancho Guinda, C. 2014. Abridged abstracts: Rushing the research race? Revista Canaria de Estudios Ingleses 69, 15-34