Writing your abstract: not a last-minute activity [4/8]

Recognise this? You have finally finished your paper and realise that you have forgotten to write the abstract. You cobble one together from sentences in the paper and try to submit your paper online. It turns out the journal has a strict word limit for the abstract and the system won't let you go through. So you quickly cut a few words or sentences and press submit. The paper comes back within a week with a desk-reject. One thing the editor mentions is that the abstract doesn't clearly communicate the paper's contribution.

The abstract might well be the most important part of your paper, so it is crucial to get it right. With the title it creates the paper's first impression. With the introduction and conclusion, it might be the only part of the paper that some overworked editors read before deciding on a desk-reject. So writing your abstract is definitely not a last-minute activity and requires a lot of trial and error! This post provides you with some tips on what to include in your abstract and how to improve on your first draft.

What needs to be included in an abstract?

As with any part of a manuscript, the exact format can be very discipline and journal specific. However, in my discipline - Business & Management - an abstract generally needs to include:

  • Research background, sets the scene for your paper and indicates why the topic is important.
  • Research gap, what it is that we do not yet know about this topic?
  • Research topic/question, what exactly is your paper about?
  • Theory you draw on [if any].
  • Research methods and data that are used in the paper.
  • Key results; ensure you include the actual content of your results, not something like “we present our results which confirm/conflict with prior research”, which doesn't tell the reader anything.
  • Implications for theory & practice, this part can sometimes be left out in a 100-word abstract. If you do include this, don't write "we discuss implications for theory and practice", but tell the reader what they are.

Most journals only allow 100-200 words for an abstract and will not let you submit your manuscript if the abstract is even one word over the wordcount. Including all of the above information within this wordcount is quite a challenge, so often you will need to find a way to creatively combine different elements in one sentence. Here are some examples...

Examples of abstracts

Both of these papers were published in the Journal of World Business, which has a strict 100-word limit for its abstracts. So every single word counts. Although both abstracts cover most of the components discussed above, they are completely different, reflecting the different emphasis of the two papers.

Introducing a new concept to the field

In this article, my former PhD student Shea Fan introduced the psychological concept of (ethnic) identity confirmation to the field of international business, with a special focus on ethnically similar expatriates. Shea also published a conceptual article on this topic, as well as an article based on dyadic survey data and a practitioner-oriented article based on interview data. As this was a very new concept, it was essential to define it in the abstract to ensure reviewers started reading the paper in the right frame of mind. However, this took up a lot of words which meant that other elements of the abstract had to be curtailed or omitted.

Providing empirical rigour to existing concepts

Research into language differences in multinational companies had been largely based on interview data, covering only a very limited number of home and host countries. This article - the fourth and last of my articles on language barriers in MNCs - therefore reported on a large-scale scale quantitative study, showing how policies and practices were different across home and host countries. The article was data-driven and descriptive rather than theory-driven and analytical. Therefore the main focus is on the method and results, as well as implications for management, rather than the research gap/topic and theory.

Some quick fine-tuning tips

  • Find highly cited papers in your field and look at the abstract for ideas for good practice
  • Make a list of keywords and ensure they are either in the title or the abstract. Keywords should include:
    • key concepts + method,
    • level of analysis,
    • context if it is unusual, unique, or a key contribution
  • Send your abstract to the gym!
    • Cut flabby fat [waffle words]
    • Tighten and tone up, make every word count. Nearly every abstract can be improved by cutting words. Cutting words makes you focus on the essentials
    • Most of us clutter our writing with qualifiers and irrelevant digressions; although this can be tolerated in the main text, it is often fatal in the abstract
  • Some specifics
    • Don’t use abbreviations in your abstract
    • Most journals don’t like references in abstracts
    • Good words to use to highlight your contribution: reframe, reinterpret, reformulate, bridges, shift in focus, profound implications

How to avoid a desk-reject?

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