Writing Abstracts

Abstracts are short, informative writings that serve as screening tools or previews for research papers, conference presentations, and other communications. Abstracts' focus (summary vs. results) and format (headings vs. no headings) vary across contexts. Writers in all contexts give their texts similar functions such as "reviewing literature", "identifying a problem" or "describing an approach". These functions are called rhetorical moves.

Identifying Rhetorical moves

Below are five rhetorical moves that can appear in abstracts, questions these moves may answer, and sample sentences from an abstract in technology. A move's length can vary (from a phrase to sentences) and some moves may be omitted depending on the abstract's audience and purpose.

Move 1: Introducing background or problem
What is currently known? What is the gap in knowledge?

Examples: Children undergoing long-term hospital care face problems of isolation from their familiar home and school environments.

This isolation has an impact on the emotional wellbeing of the child.

Move 2: Presenting current research with justification and/or purpose
What is this study's aim? How does it fill the gap in knowledge?

Examples: In this paper we report on research that explores the design of technologies that mitigate some of the negative aspects of separation, while respecting the sensitivities of the hospital, school and home contexts.

This paper reports on the field trial of the technology.

Move 3: Describing methodology
How was the study conducted? Was the data quantitative, qualitative, or both?

Examples: We conducted design workshops with parents, teachers and hospital staff…

In response we designed a novel technology that combined an ambient presence with photo-sharing to connect hospitalised children with schools and families.

Move 4: Reporting results
What were the outcomes? What was discovered?

Example: We ... found that there was a strong desire for mediated connection, but also a significant need to protect privacy and avoid disruption.

Move 5: Interpreting results
How are the results interpreted? How has this study contributed to the field?

Example: The research provides new insights into how technology can support connectedness and provides a foundation for contributing to the wellbeing of children and young people in sensitive settings.

Click to view complete abstract

Wadley, Greg, et al. "Exploring ambient technology for connecting hospitalised children with school and home." International Journal of Human - Computer Studies 72.8-9 (2014): 640+. Academic OneFile. Web. 16 July 2014.

considerations when writing rhetorical moves

The previous section defined rhetorical moves; this section describes the different language options when writing within these moves. Each move requires decisions, such as which subject or verb to use or how to organize information.

Below is a table that pairs language choices (left) with sample sentences (right). The sample sentences come from a single Bioinformatics abstract. It is a structured abstract, which means there are headings ("motivation" and "results").

Move 1: Introducing background or problem

What subject does the first sentence introduce?

  • an idea
  • the study's purpose
  • the researcher's action
  • a problem or uncertainty

What is the subject of the second sentence?

  • the subject of the first sentence
  • a later noun in the first sentence
  • a new subject

Is it typical to include citations?

Is it typical to define acronyms?

This heading is part of the format required by the journal.
Due to its low cost, amplicon sequencing, also known as ultra-deep targeted sequencing, is now becoming widely used in oncology for detection of actionable mutations, i.e. mutations influencing cell sensitivity to targeted therapies.
The authors introduce amplicon sequencing as the first subject. They then describe its current use in the field.

Amplicon sequencing is based on the PCR amplification of the regions of interest, a process that considerably distorts the information on copy numbers initially present in the tumor DNA.
The authors continue to use the same subject to begin to introduce a problem ("distorts the information").

Therefore, additional experiments such as SNP or CGH arrays often complement amplicon sequencing in clinics in order to identify copy number status of genes whose amplification or deletion has direct consequences on the efficacy of a particular cancer treatment.
No citations are used here. Acronyms are not defined, likely because the target audience does not need them defined.

So far there has been no proven method to extract the information on gene copy number aberrations based solely on amplicon sequencing.
The authors identify a gap in the research field.

Move 2: Presenting current research with justification and/or purpose

Is it typical to use metadiscourse (i.e., helpful references to the article's organization, e.g., in this section)?

Is it typical to use first person pronouns?

This heading is also part of the format required by the journal.
Here we present ONCOCNV, …
The authors use metadiscourse ("here") and the pronoun "we". Note that this section does not begin with results, despite the header.
Move 3: Describing methodology

Is the paper's primary contribution its methodology?

How long should this section be?

What verb tense (past vs. present) and forms (passive vs. active) are used?

… a method that includes a multi-factor normalization and annotation technique enabling the detection of large copy number changes from amplicon sequencing data.
The paper's contribution is its methodology. Its description is brief and includes its benefit. The sentence uses present tense and active voice ("present").
Move 4: Reporting results

Is it typical to report results in general or with specifics?

Is it typical to use exact numbers or approximations?

We validated our approach on high and low amplicon density datasets and demonstrated that ONCOCNV can achieve a precision comparable to that of array CGH techniques in detecting copy number aberrations.
The authors report the results neither too generally, nor too specifically (no exact numbers). The subject of the sentence is again "we" and the verb is in past tense.
Move 5: Interpreting results

How do authors typically qualify the strength of their claims?

How do authors typically conclude their abstracts?

• with implications
• with recommendations
• with suggestions for future research

Thus, ONCOCNV applied on amplicon sequencing data would make the use of additional array CGH or SNP array experiments unnecessary.
The authors use the modal "would" to show that ONCOCNV is not currently used, but is hypothetically more efficient. The abstract ends with an implication.

Click to view complete abstract

Boeva, V., Popova, T., Toffoli, S., Kamal, M., Tourneau, C. L., Gentien, D., et al. Multi-factor data normalization enables the detection of copy number aberrations in amplicon sequencing data. Bioinformatics, 30. Retrieved July 16, 2014.

Works consulted

Swales, J. M., & Feak, C. B. (2009). Abstracts and the writing of abstracts. Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.

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