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Graduate Studies

Research article abstracts

The abstract is an increasingly important component of a research article, as it is the one section that both journal editors and researchers alike are certain to read.

The Function of Abstracts

Abstracts function as small stand-alone texts which give the reader a short summary of the paper’s topic, methodology and findings. An abstract can help the reader decide if they want to continue to read the whole text, and gives reviewers and readers an overview of what is to come.

While conventions around writing abstracts vary between disciplines, most abstracts are limited to 100 to 300 words and can make up to five rhetorical moves, as described in the following table.

Five Potential Moves of the Research Abstract

Move # Typical Labels Implied Questions Further Suggestions
1 Background/ Introduction/Situation What do we know about the topic? Why is this topic important? Many researchers choose to open their abstract with a real-world issue, their purpose or objective, or a problem or uncertainty.
2 Present Research/Purpose What is this study about? This next sentence should be connected to the first.
3 Methods/Materials/ Subjects/Procedures How was it done? This move is likely to be written in past tense and passive voice, and be only 1 to 2 sentences in length.
4 Results/Findings What was discovered? In this move, general results are usually presented first, followed by specific. Abstracts in quantitative studies tend to provide exact numbers/statistical data for findings.
5 Discussion/Conclusion/ Implications/ Recommendations What do the findings mean? Sometimes this move exists, sometimes it does not. When included, this is the last thing read in the abstract so it should say something meaningful.

Adapted by Katie Steeves from: Swales, John M. and Christine B. Feak. 2009. Abstracts and the Writing of Abstracts. Michigan: The University of Michigan Press.