September 6, 2017

The Gateway to Your Research: Tips for writing abstracts

Posted by AGU Career Center

Note: An earlier version of this post ran in March, during the Spring Virtual Poster Showcase.  With the 2018 Ocean Sciences Meeting abstract deadline arriving tonight, 6 September 2017, at 11:59 ET, I am reposting the article in hopes that those making the finishing touches on the OSM abstracts may find it useful as well as prospective Fall Virtual Poster Showcase participants.  Enjoy!

Writing a compelling abstract that engages your audience can be a challenge: you’ve got just a few seconds to grab the reader’s attention.  85% of the time, that reader will have made a decision, consciously or unconsciously, on whether they’ll continue reading after just the title and the first sentence.  In this blog, I will discuss what is needed to submit a VPS abstract and provide some additional tips on abstract composition.  

Virtual Poster Showcase abstract submissions for the Fall Showcase will close on 30 September.  You can find more information about the program and its abstract submission process at the end of this post.

Abstracts: The Gateway to Your Research

Though an abstract is a summary at heart, think of it as an access point:

  • An access point for others to learn about your researcher
  • An access point for machine-readable abstract databases and search engine applications
  • An access point to you!  Your abstract in many cases will be the first impression you make with other scientists and future colleagues

As you can see, there’s a lot riding on your abstract.  How do you craft an abstract that can make an impression, especially considering that you will be competing with character limits?

Using C.A.R. to drive your abstract home

C.A.R. is a technique commonly associated with interviews and resumes, but the idea can also be applied to abstract composition.  What does C.A.R. stand for?

  • Context or Challenge
  • Action
  • Result

Structuring your responses in this way during an interview is a good way to provide your interviewer with meaningful feedback that can be used to make their final decision.  Applying that same structure to your abstract can have a similar outcome.  Putting it into scientific terms, C.A.R. can be translated to hypothesis, methods, and result.  Think about your research: can you craft a sentence that summarizes those three points of your research?  That sentence is what we will call the “hook.”

The hook is the first sentence of your abstract paragraphs.  It is the sentence that will make or break the rest of your abstract.  While you can expand on each item with the rest of the abstract, using the first sentence to hook your audience will make it easier to get them interested.

This might initially feel like it is bucking against typical scientific writing, where you would be encouraged to structure your abstract in accordance with the arrangement of your research paper or poster (i.e., topic, research question, methods, results, and conclusion) with 1 or 2 sentences to describe each.  You should still include all of those components, but don’t do it first.  Get their attention first!

Now that you have your “hook,” it is time to figure out your title.  The title should give a clear indication of what to expect from the research, but not all research is the same.  There are different types of titles as well: interrogative, descriptive, and declarative.  Each of these types has a different focus.  The chart below describes the three types and provides examples from previous Virtual Poster Showcases.

Title Type Focus
Interrogative

Investigating Effects of Forest Management on Light Use Efficiency in Loblolly Pine

 

Hypothesis, research question, context or challenge
Descriptive

Integrative Approach to Identifying Urban Farms in Detroit, MI

 

Methods or action
Declarative

In the Wake of Fukushima: Cesium Bioaccumulation in North Pacific Fish

 

Results or conclusion

 

Think about your research and your audience: what about your research is most likely to grab the attention of your audience? Is it the problem, the solution or how you went about finding the answer? Craft your title to emphasize the component of your research that will most resonate with the audience.

Some titles may fall under multiple categories.  In the Interrogative example, the word “investigating” invokes the methods that were used to investigate; the primary focus of the title is what will be investigated, the “effects of forest management on light use efficiency.”

In the Declarative example, “In the Wake of Fukushima” provides context to the reader.  The emphasis in the title is “Cesium Bioaccumulation in North Pacific Fish.”  By combining these two ideas, the context and the conclusion, this title will have more of an impact as it creates a narrative in the mind of the reader.  You can learn more about this by reading a recent study published on PLOS One investigated impact effects of narrative-style abstracts.

Once you’ve established your title and hook, it is time to finish the rest of your abstract.  This is where you will describe your research in further detail.  Try to be as concise and precise as possible in summarizing your research, and be sure to include descriptive keywords whenever possible.  You want to toe the line between providing too much detail and not going far enough.  Remember that this is an abstract, not your actual research: you are trying to gain their interest.  The abstract is the gateway into your research.  Provide enough information to entice them.

The Final Step: Abstract Submission

You can find more resources to help you write your abstract at the Virtual Poster Showcase webpages, including the Eos article “A Guide to Writing an AGU Abstract”  or check out Sharing Science’s tips on creating plain-language abstracts.  Now that you know more about crafting your abstract, take advantage of Virtual Poster Showcase by submitting your abstract this weekend!   

About the Virtual Poster Showcase

Kimberly Diep, one of the winners of the Fall 2016 Undergraduate Showcase

The Virtual Poster Showcase (VPS) provides undergraduate and graduate students with a chance to share their science with their peers and be judged by professionals in the Earth and space sciences.  Once the abstract phase is complete, participants will also need to upload a poster and a video of themselves presenting their poster onto the VPS online platform.  The video and poster will then be reviewed during the judging phase, when the students will answer questions posed by other VPS participants and judges.

The first step in the process is successfully submitting your abstract.  To successfully submit your abstract, you will need to provide a few additional items:

  • Author information: Contact information for your research advisor and any secondary authors.
  • Division: You will need to select a “division” associated with your research. These divisions will be used during the judging phase to facilitate peer review assignments.  Divisions for the Graduate Student showcase have a narrower focus than the Undergraduate Student showcase.  The list of divisions is extensive; if it falls under the Earth and space sciences, your research probably has an associated division.
  • Fee: To cover administrative costs, Virtual Poster Showcase has a $35 (USD) fee. This fee is automatically waived for participants from low income and lower-middle income countries.

The last part of a successful abstract submission is the abstract itself.  Abstracts must be in English and will be submitted via an electronic process. The title is limited to 300 characters and the body is limited to 2000 characters (spaces and punctuation included).
Nathaniel Janick is the Career Services Coordinator at the American Geophysical Union.