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Academic Coaching & Writing

II. Crafting Abstracts to Define Your Article’s Scope and Significance

Feb 03, 2014 by Amy Benson Brown

Almost everyone knows what an abstract is: a short synopsis that precedes the text of the journal article. Fewer people fully realize the power of this little summary.

Since abstracts summarize the essence of the argument and are searchable through research databases, they offer a critical window into your work. Readers will find your article and probably decide whether or not to read it, based on the abstract’s wording. So this summary, probably the smallest part of your entire article submission packet, deserves substantial scrutiny and polishing.

The most critical job of the abstract is to describe the article’s scope and significance. Though authors find diverse ways to convey this essential information, excellent abstracts communicate what the article is about and why it matters.

Consider how this recent example of an abstract from a major sociology journal communicates the article’s scope and significance. As you review this example, note phrases that describe the scope of the article. The term “scope” refers to the breadth and boundaries of the investigation of the topic. Also note phrases that suggest the importance of this research.

Multiple Perceived Reasons for Major Discrimination and Depression

Although perceived discrimination is linked to poor mental health, little is known about the mental health significance of the number of perceived reasons for discrimination. Using survey data from a community-based sample of adults living in Miami, Florida (n = 1,944), this study tests whether those reporting multiple perceived reasons for major discriminating events are at increased risk for depression. Cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses reveal those reporting multiple reasons for major discrimination are at increased risk for lifetime major depression and subsequent depressive symptoms. While social support and mastery partially mediated the link between multiple perceived reasons for discrimination and subsequent depressive symptoms, this psychological risk was not fully explained by these coping resources. Together the findings underscore the psychological toxicity of perceived discrimination and the importance of considering multiple perceived reasons for discrimination as a risk factor for poor mental health.

Gayman, M.D., & Barragan, J. (2013). Multiple Perceived Reasons for Major Discrimination and Depression. Society and Mental Health, 3(3), 203-220. doi: 10.1177/2156869313496438

How is Scope Communicated Here?

The scope of this article on mental health is suggested by phrases such as: “perceived discrimination,” “depression,” “survey data,” and “cross-sectional and longitudinal analyses.” These key phrases give readers a good idea of the subject matter and the author’s angle of analysis, including a sense of the author’s methodological approach.

Knowing what the article is about and its primary method of analysis, however, does not always tell the reader why this work matters. How does the above example of an abstract suggest what is at stake?

How is Significance Communicated Here?

In the example above, the article’s significance comes across in the assertion that “little is known” about this topic and that there are serious consequences of this gap in knowledge, namely the “risk for lifetime major depression.” In addition, readers are likely to be intrigued when the abstract concludes with a promise that this research will “underscore the psychological toxicity of perceived discrimination.”

To strengthen your own abstract’s ability to capture the scope and significance of your article, you might try to create a similar list of key terms and phrases that convey in plain language your topic’s scope and potential significance.

Keep in mind the need to make your abstract as friendly to search engines as possible. For a few terrific tips and illustrative examples of how to optimize the phrasing of your abstract for database searches, visit the “Author Services” page hosted by the major journal publisher Wiley-Blackwell

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