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The art of the abstract

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 01 February 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:060270
  1. Senthil K Selvanathan, final year medical student1,
  2. Rebecca D Udani, final year medical student2,
  3. S D Udani, preregistration house office2,
  4. K R Haylett, principal clinical scientist3
  1. 1University of Manchester
  2. 2Royal Preston Hospital, Preston
  3. 3Department of Medical Engineering, Manchester Royal Infirmary, Manchester

The abstract is your calling card to the world of scientific research. Senthil K Selvanathan and coauthors explain what you need to do to get your message across in a non-abstract way

When we begin researching or reviewing the literature we start with the abstract, but it is easiest to write one when you have finished the rest of your report. It's often the entrance exam for conference papers and presentations. With only the abstract to go on, panels of reviewers sit in judgment, selecting the research to be presented at a conference or simply consigning it to the bin. All they have to go on are a few meagre lines, which may convey years of research. The tools of the keenest crossword expert, a good deal of skill, and hopefully the guidance presented here are needed to make every word count. This is the art of the abstract.

The abstract should be structured, informative, concise, and “klear” (SICK), and if you read no further than this you will already have picked up the starting point of a good abstract. But to produce a real work of science and art, read on and all will be revealed.

An abstract isn't abstract

When you first look at a scientific article, the title and abstract give you an overall impression of what the article is about. The abstract usually gives the aims of the research, the methods used to investigate the aims, and the main findings and conclusions.

From the abstract, the reader can determine the broad content, results, and conclusions without needing to read the whole paper. The abstract should stand alone and be independent of the rest of the paper. Good abstracts allow researchers to find and assess quickly a wide range of relevant work. In effect, it is a tool that helps the …

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