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March 03, 2011

Making a Concrete Abstract

Anne by Anne Breitenbach

The Publication Manual (2.04) states that “A well-prepared abstract can be the most important single paragraph in an article.”  Indeed, it would be hard to overstate the abstract’s importance if you want to publish and actually have your work read and cited. Your article (or dissertation or conference presentation) uses a ploy similar to that of an anglerfish.  The abstract is the lure that beguiles the elusive researcher to the article, much as the fleshy growth suspended from an anglerfish’s head entices its prey.  (There are differenceHumpback_anglerfishs, of course. The anglerfish lurks in underwater caves and lures its prey by a long filament, whereas your article lurks in a journal and seductively waves its abstract from a bibliographic database such as Dissertation Abstracts or APA’s own PsycINFO. Other differences include that most research doesn’t try to engulf its reader whole.)  

The abstract’s special functions determine the specifics of its form. Rule 2.04 tells us that it should do three things well:

First, it needs to find its audience. Practically, that means you need to embed keywords that “enhance the user’s ability to find it.”  This is an excellent example of a place where Mark Twain’s dictum applies. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.” You need to use current, intuitive, and accurate terminology. We’ll talk more about keywords in an upcoming post.

Second, it’s got to be a good abstract. That is, it needs to encapsulate the essence of the article in a way that gives all essential information but sifts out the inessential. The core of that information is consistent across articles, but specific kinds of articles—for example, a literature review or meta-analysis, a theory-oriented paper, or a case study—also have specific requirements.  We’ll talk more about what elements all articles require and what particular elements specific kinds of articles require in an upcoming post.

Third, yep, it needs to be in APA Style.  And because there are special rules that apply to abstracts in terms of length (word limits vary from journal to journal and typically range from 150 to 250 words), required elements, and need to make sense in isolation from the article, there are a number of rules that are unique to the abstract. For example, there are specific rules that apply to numbers, to abbreviations, to citations. Those too we’ll explore in an upcoming post.



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