How to Write an Abstract for a Research Paper

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  • 0:04 What Is an Abstract?
  • 0:32 What Content Should…
  • 3:42 Formatting Your Abstract
  • 4:48 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
J.R. Hudspeth

Jackie has taught college English and Critical Thinking and has a Master's degree in English Rhetoric and Composition

Expert Contributor
Maria Airth

Maria has a Doctorate of Education and over 20 years of experience teaching psychology and math related courses at the university level.

Writing an abstract for a research paper is a good way to help your instructor understand the basics of what your paper is about. In this lesson, we'll learn more about their purpose and see what you might put in an abstract for a research paper!

What Is an Abstract?

Abstracts are a good way to sum up the key contents of a paper, from the research that it uses to the ideas that you want to share with the reader. Further, if you ever publish your paper, it will help readers to find and to understand what your whole paper covers so that it is easier for those readers to do quick, quality research. A good abstract is actually quick and simple, so it should not take much time to do, and it only has three basic pieces of content.

What Content Should Feature in an Abstract?

The content in an abstract typically is split into three elements: the summary of info in your paper, the summary of your research sources, and keywords.

In order to summarize your paper, you should consider naming the main topic of your paper and the problem statement. You should also address the controlling idea for your paper. The controlling idea explains exactly how you will talk about the main topic. It's also important to note that the abstract must not contain information not included in the research paper.

For example, a writer might choose the main topic of 'healthcare.' This is a broad topic, and in his or her paper, the writer should consider how to specifically discuss this topic. The writer may discuss the Affordable Care Act or insurance premiums or socialized medicine or any number of specific ideas about healthcare. This more specific way of talking about the broad main topic is the controlling idea.

You might also give some basic insight into how you will discuss the main topic. This should not take up too many words. Take about 50 to 100 words to complete this part of your abstract. Of course, a longer paper might call for a longer summary in your abstract.

Once you have summarized your paper, the next thing that you should do is to summarize the research sources that you have used to help write your paper. You do not have to name every source here. Instead, you should just name a few of the sources that you used most often and summarize how these sources specifically helped you to write your paper. For example:

'This paper is heavily based on the Mario Masters (2014) study on how video games can improve hand-eye coordination and the Zelda Prower (2012) book 'Forced to Try Again: Repetition in Video Games,' which is a major basis for the section on how video games can help people improve their patience and their study habits.'

You can see here that the piece names two different works that make up a major part of the research for the paper. Not only does this part of the abstract name the key sources, but it explains how the information in those sources was used specifically in writing the paper. This section should also be about 50 to 100 words long.

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Additional Activities

Practice Writing Abstracts for Published Research Papers Activity

Learning a new skill is easier when you have lots of practice of examples of others performing that skill. This activity helps students practice writing abstracts for research papers by using already published work.


  • Multiple published research (with abstracts) papers per student
    • You will need to separate the abstract from the paper.
    • Choose papers that are short enough that students will be able to work with them in limited time frames.


  • After your students view the video lesson, conduct a brief class discussion to review the main points discussed in the video.
  • You may want to make a list of the important parts and steps to writing a good abstract for a research paper.
  • Now, tell your students that they will be reading through a few research papers and writing abstracts for each.
    • Give each student the number of papers you determine to be appropriate for that student to read in the given amount of time.
  • Students should:
    • Read each paper.
    • Write an abstract for each paper read (remembering the steps and important information discussed in the video lesson).
    • Remind your students to include keywords in their abstracts.
  • After all the abstracts have been read, hand out the published abstracts for each paper and have your students compare the actual abstract to the one they wrote.
    • Did they include the same information?
    • Was theirs much shorter/longer than the published version?
    • Did they have the same keywords?


  • If your students are not equipped to write multiple abstracts as described above, you can alter the activity by separating the papers from the abstracts and having students try to pair the correct abstracts with the papers they summarize.

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