Writing Abstracts – Four Years On

Four years ago, I wrote a blog posting ‘Writing Abstracts‘.  This has been one of the most frequently accessed postings over the years, and as I put the finishing touches to another abstract, I thought this would be a good chance to review, and maybe provide more examples of extracts from my own experiences.

I know many people struggle condensing their carefully crafted paper down to a few words, and worry that the ‘essence’ of their report will be lost.  I guess that because I tend to write concisely anyhow, I seem to have a knack for this sort of thing.

One word of warning, do not try and use the ‘auto summarise’ function in Microsoft Word to help you produce the abstract.  I have tried this several times, and it simply does not work.  The computer cannot know the most important elements of your writing, and invariably focuses on the wrong part of the paper.

In my first posting, I focused on the ‘say what you’re going to say, say it, say what you’ve said’ approach.  I have changed my mind slightly on this, frequently the word count ‘allowed’ for an abstract is too tight to allow this.  It’s really important however to ensure that in the first sentence, that the reader is left in no doubt what the paper is about… this is particularly important if ‘key words’ are not allowed.

Here, I humbly offer three abstracts for work which I’ve written recently.  Number one –

“This small-scale project considers the motivation of students whilst studying for a professional doctorate within the UK Higher Education sector. The literature review notes that motivation can come either from intrinsic or extrinsic factors.  Primary research in the form of two semi-structured interviews support this view, and whilst the literature states that external factors are the primary drivers to many students, intrinsic factors hold substantial value to the interviewees within this study.  The use of Technology Enhanced Learning however has had no significant motivational impact on the interviewees. The research notes that internal motivation is a factor that may require consideration when professional doctorate programmes are promoted.”

This abstract must have worked, as the paper has been accepted for a conference in Edinburgh in April.  The first sentence does pretty well reflect the title of the paper – when I do research I have to admit that I don’t fully read the titles of some papers, but the abstract provides a good chance to reinforce what the paper really is about.

Secondly, a paper which is simply a literature review, with no primary research –

“International students are a valuable resource, providing both financial and cultural benefits to many Higher Education Institutions. The additional support needed by these students is counterbalanced by the significant income that they provide to the institution.
This literature review identifies in which ways, and to what extent Technology Enhanced Learning can support international students through the three phases (presage, process and product) of their learning journey at the institution. Regular and early contact with students, sympathetic support at the start and throughout the teaching programme, and flexibility (within the boundaries of institutional regulations) combined with appropriate preparation during the assessment period are all areas where TEL can support international students.”

One temptation, and a cause for contention in my PhD cohort, is whether references should be included in an abstract.  I strongly believe that they should not be included.  This abstract could have easily referred to the author of the ‘presage, process, product’ concept, but this will of course be referenced in the main body of the paper.  One thing I don’t like about this abstract is the over-use of brackets – I think these were added during the final revisions, and should have left them.  Note that I only use an abbreviation (TEL) after I have used the full version of the term (Technology Enhanced Learning).

And finally, my latest abstract, which is still a work in progress (for the next week anyhow) –

“This small-scale research project formatively evaluates Shareville, a bespoke virtual environment developed by a UK University. The literature review focused on the development of vocational higher education and the historical development of virtual environments. Desk-based research evaluates various frameworks used for the evaluation of technology enhanced learning. Primary research was carried out in the form of semi-structured interviews with three users of Shareville.
A number of aspects in the development and use of Shareville are identified which may be of benefit for others who are developing virtual environments. The specific aspect of the cost of developing virtual environments are also explored – concerns by the developer and content providers of the time and cost taken to develop rich video resources can be mitigated by considering the project over the longer time period that the resources are going to exist.”

This feels a little long at the moment, and I will have to lose a sentence from this prior to submission.  But hopefully this provides a good flavour of the paper, briefly mentions the research methods, and with my golden rule of ‘no surprises’, the conclusion of my paper is stated.

PhD – wise, I’m now 3/5 of the way through the ‘taught’ element, with just two traditional modules left before the proposal and thesis stage.  It is feeling very much like a marathon at the moment (let’s be honest, it’s the closest I’ll ever get to running a marathon).  But with the help of the rest of the cohort, we are getting there.  The next residential is in April, and will be a great opportunity to recharge and re-invigorate ourselves.

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1 comment so far

  1. […] comment on the front page Comment in brief 20 Feb 10 Two cultures, one mind Writing abstracts Comment in brief 18 Feb 10 Chasewater Dam Blog Catching up … we’ve been busy Comment in […]


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