Use a structured abstract to help write and revise


Most journals don’t expect an abstract to be written in a particular format. But some do. They require writers to follow a particular format – a pre-structured template. These templates – structured abstracts as they are called – are specifically designed to focus on the key points in a paper. These abstracts are designed for readers. Readers can check out important aspects of the paper before they decide to read on, or not.

However, templates are also useful for writers, particularly to assist in the thinking process. Structured abstracts force writers to decide on and state, in relatively few sentences, key features of their paper. Often, the structured abstract demands writers pay attention to the textual features which they can easily gloss over, or fudge.

So, how can you use a structured abstract as part of your writing process? Well, you can use a structured abstract to kick off your writing, or as a way to organise your revision. You can also use a structured abstract as a final check – have you included everything in the paper and emphasised key points sufficiently? And even if the structured abstract is not your final actual abstract, the exercise of writing short, and to different formats, can help you to get clear on some very important aspects of academic argument.

Some structured abstracts follow a pretty conventional format – Objective, Methods, Results and Conclusion – or a variation on this. But even though this format is pretty familiar, it can still be very helpful to write a one sentence objective for a paper.

Getting clear on your objective – what you hope the paper does – can be challenging. Is it good enough to explore or investigate for example? Should your paper do something else instead – clarify, evidence, challenge, verify, reveal, develop, review, theorise, interrogate evaluate, assess, document, voice… ? Writing an objective can help you get rid of some of all-encompassing and vague verbs and hone in on exactly what you are trying to do.

One common variation on the OMRC abstract is to substitute Background for Objective. In Background, writers are expected to situate their study in a specific context – policy, practice or research – and justify their reason for writing the paper. Simply identifying a gap isn’t sufficient for Background – you have to tell the reader why the gap matters and how.

Abstract from Dentistry and Medical Research journal

As an aide for writing, I rather like the structured abstract required by most Emerald journals. Emerald demands that authors write a 250 word abstract – the generic journal abstract instructions say:

All submissions must include a structured abstract, following the format outlined below.

These four sub-headings and their accompanying explanations must always be included:

  • Purpose
  • Design/methodology/approach
  • Findings
  • Originality

The following three sub-headings are optional and can be included, if applicable:

  • Research limitations/implications
  • Practical implications
  • Social implications

Further explanation is offered for these terms. Purpose is clarified –

This is where you explain ‘why’ you undertook this study. If you are presenting new or novel research, explain the problem that you have solved. If you are building upon previous research, briefly explain why you felt it was important to do so. This is your opportunity to let readers know why you chose to study this topic or problem and its relevance. Let them know what your key argument or main finding is.

Purpose is not the same as an objective, although it covers some of the same territory. Purpose is a broader take on your topic. The writer is expected to present the warrant for the paper – is it addressing a problem? What and why and to what ends? Is it adding to or challenging existing research? If so, what and why and to what ends? Writers are asked to get specific, rather than ignoring the particularities and presenting a de-contextualised purpose.

And originality/value is also explained further –

This is your opportunity to provide readers with an analysis of the value of your results. It’s a good idea to ask colleagues whether your analysis is balanced and fair and again, it’s important not to exaggerate. You can also conjecture what future research steps could be.

The purpose and the contribution are of course connected. You establish in the purpose what the problem is, and then you say in originality/value what your answer is, what it means and why it is important.

But claiming your contribution, making its novelty, originality and significance clear to readers, is often hard. It’s particularly hard for less experienced writers who don’t yet feel that they have the authority to make any claims at all. Yet, without understanding your own claims and the So What – and the Now What, if you choose to add in the research, practical and social implications – it’s pretty difficult to write a decent conclusion.

Having to make the originality/value explicit of your paper clear in a couple of sentences is really good exercise to do, no matter where you are in the writing and revision process.

Abstract from Qualitative Research Journal

Using structured abstracts as an aide to revision might seem counter-intuitive. Equally, using a structured abstract to orient your writing, even if it isn’t the abstract you will use in the final version, may seem equally odd. But as exercises, as part of the process of writing a well-argued paper, using structured abstracts can be a great help.

I have a collection of structured abstract templates that I use for just this purpose. I exercise my capacity to write succinctly, I don’t expect it just to be there because I want it to be. I practice.

Perhaps you too might want to practice by adding some structured abstracts to your bank of writing strategies.

With thanks to the authors of the two published papers – they may be very surprised to see their work appear here as illustrations of structured abstracts!