Writing an Abstract
When writing a scientific paper, one of the hardest parts to
write is the Abstract. Usually, it is the last thing written even though it
is placed first in the finished document. In Biology 112 and 113 Lab,
students will be asked to design, conduct, and write a formal report on their
own independent research projects. Invariably the one portion of the
write-up that gives students the most difficulty is the Abstract. Thus, over
the course of Biology 111, you may be asked to write abstracts for selected
experiments to aid you in learning how to do so effectively. Following
completion of the experiment and distribution and discussion of class data
you may be asked to turn in a typed (using a word processor) Abstract for
some of the following (due dates will be set for each):
- Accuracy and Precision
- Sugar in Soft Drinks
- Beer’s Law
- Yeast Plate Count
An Abstract is a brief, concise summary of an experiment in
one SHORT (aim for 100 words or less) paragraph. It should include a
statement of the overall experimental procedure which was followed; this
should be in enough depth so a reader can understand what was done, but
without details. There should also be a summary statement of the results
obtained, pointing out any noteworthy data gathered, and a summary statement
of what those results prove.
The Abstract should be written in accepted scientific format.
When writing an abstract, the first line or two (single-spaced rather
than double-) should include the proper citation of the paper: Author (you),
last name first. Date. Title of paper (which, if this was a whole paper,
should exactly match the title on the title page). If this was a
published paper, the journal name, etc. would follow.
Summary of What Was Done:
Then, starting on the next line and double-spaced, the abstract
should follow. This is a short, concise summary in one
paragraph (many journals limit the number of words - aim for 100 words or
less) of the experiment. Why was it important that this work be done – what
was being tested (for example, “Because of interest among students and law
enforcement officers, the alcohol content of lab brew was determined from the
specific gravity of a same-strength distillate.”)? Briefly, yet
concisely, what was done, what overall experimental procedure was followed
(for example, “All volunteers were asked to take two grams of vitamin C and
collect hourly urine samples. These samples were analyzed for vitamin C
Summary of Data/Results:
A brief summary of the findings, the results obtained,
pointing out any noteworthy data gathered should be included. This should
be a concise summary of the data, not a detailed presentation thereof
(for example, “XYZ Pop was found to contain 12 tsp. of sugar per can, the
highest of any of the brands tested.”).
Summary of Conclusions:
Also, a summary statement commenting on the significance of
those results – what conclusions can be made – should be included (for
example, “Because XYZ Pop was found to contain the most sugar per can of all
the brands tested, it is the worst choice for diabetics who must restrict
their sugar intake.”).
Grammar and Composition Guidelines:
Many of the examples given below are based on text included by
past students in their abstracts for the first experiment. These items are
typically “problem areas” for students.
- For this purpose and unlike in a
“real” scientific paper, so
that your graded Abstract may be placed into your lab notebook, margins
should be set such that the actual text area is no larger than 5˝ inches
wide (for example, 1" left and 2" right margins on 8˝"-wide paper). Thus,
when your work is returned, you can place it and the accompanying gradesheet
in your lab notebook.
- Generally, writing should be done in
the past tense (“It
was done. . .”). A scientific paper should be written in the passive
voice. Avoid use of “I,” “me,” “my,” “we,” and “you” (even the implied
“you” format). Sentences like, “It was done,” should be used rather than
“I did it.” Note that, in the abstract (and in the rest of a scientific
paper), the point is not to give orders for someone else to follow (as is
the case in this document, in which I am telling you how to do it),
but rather, to relate to your reader what was done in the experiment which
was conducted. Thus, do not use implied you (“Do this.”). For example:
- “I experimented on rats, and I found. . .”
- “Experiments on rats showed that. . .”
- EVEN BETTER:
- “Rats were found to. . .”
- Check spelling (one of the advantages
of a word processor)
and grammar. Check for subject-verb agreement and also verb tense agreement
among the sentences (“I am going to the store, and I bought
groceries,” is not correct.). Grammar and English usage should be carefully
checked. Common mistakes among students include forgetting to italicize
scientific names and problems dealing with unusual plural words (“spectra”
is the plural of “spectrum” and “data” is the plural of “datum”). Also,
watch out for run-on sentences.
- Many of the following abbreviations
and scientific notations are problems for students:
- 20° C
- In WordPerfect, do [ctrl]-w to get special characters, then
choose the degree sign which is 6,36 or 1,14. Do not handwrite these, but
learn how to do them on the computer (that’s part of the point here). In
many word processing programs, holding down the [alt] key while typing 0176
on the numeric keypad (you may need to turn [num lock] on) will also give you
the degree symbol. You can also copy the symbol from Windows charmap
(Select “Start” then “Run,” then type in “charmap”) into your word processing
program. Note the space between that and the “C.” Do not write out
“degrees” nor “Celsius” in this context. Note, however, that it is correct
to say something like, “Temperature was measured in degrees Celsius.” You
must distinguish between whether something is being used as a unit label or
an actual part of the sentence structure, and abbreviate or not,
- 250 mL
- Note the space between the number and the label. Note the
capitalization of the label. Do not write out “milliliters” in this context.
The abbreviation “mL” is both singular and plural. Also, 250 of them would
be plural, not singular (“250 mL were. . .”). Watch out for automatic spell
checkers that don’t like “mL.” You may need to add this to your personal
dictionary or find some other way to override the spell checker.
- The “2” must be done as a subscript, which is not
merely a smaller font size. Yes, it should hang down below the line of type.
Do not handwrite the “2,” but figure out how to do this in your word
processing program. Using “H2O” is totally unacceptable in formal writing.
Do not use “dH2O” in formal writing. Write out “distilled water.”
Some word processing programs allow you to create macros, which could allow
you to insert “H2O” with one or two keystrokes.
- 99.72 g
- Note the space between the number and the units. Use a
lower case “g” for grams. Do not write out “grams” in this context. However,
to say “The balance weighs in grams,” is correct.
- 0.36 g
- In formal writing, when a number is less than one, always
begin with a “0” before the decimal point.
- It is neither necessary nor
acceptable to begin with “We experimented with” or “This experiment was done
to” or statements of that nature. Just begin by telling what was done.
- A vague statement like “This
indicated the accuracy,” is not enough. Be specific as to what number
indicated what for what reason. For example, “Because xxx value was closest
to xxx, therefore the xxx piece of glassware was the most xxx.” Make sure
that these sorts of conclusions are included and are specifically based on
- Note that, generally, weight is
measured or obtained, while an average is calculated.
Averages are not “measured.” For example, while the dry weights of several
pieces of glassware and the weights of glassware plus water were measured,
it is true that the weights of the water were calculated from those
- Pay attention to significant figures.
Make sure numbers are properly rounded and that you use the same number of
significant figures for all. For example, if you are discussing water
weights of 99.72 g, 99.83 g, etc., then do not also list a weight as
being “99.7 g” or “100 g.” Also, the corresponding standard deviations would
be listed as 0.30 g, 0.45 g, etc. It would not be correct to list them as
“0.3 g,” “0.452 g,” etc.
- Make sure you mention that the weight
of water was obtained three times for each container. Using a phrase like
“in triplicate” can help make your abstract more concise.
- You, in the majors’ labs, are asked to
calculate standard deviation. The students in the non-majors’ labs are asked
to calculate mean deviation (which is a different, less-informative, statistical
concept), thus the online class results present both standard and mean
deviation. Make sure you distinguish between these two numbers in your
- Especially if your numbers differed
from the “expected” outcome, it would be appropriate to comment on both your
numbers and the overall class numbers. For example, if your numbers indicate
that the graduated cylinder is the most accurate, while the class data
indicate that the volumetric flask is the most accurate, it would be
appropriate to cite both sets of numbers, and comment on the significance
- If you use the term “respectively,”
(as in, “The standard deviations were 0.14 g, 0.02 g, and 0.00 g,
respectively.”) make sure to use it correctly. Notice in the sample abstract,
below, the first sentence lists the beaker, cylinder, and flask in that order.
Thus, when “respectively” is used later on in that paragraph, that means
those numbers refer to those pieces of glassware in exactly that same order.
Thus, if the 0.14 g corresponds to the beaker, and you list the numbers in
the order 0.00, 0.02, and then 0.14 (after previously listing the glassware
in the order beaker, cylinder, then flask), you cannot use the word
“respectively.” Rather, in that case, you must specify which number goes
with which piece of glassware (“Standard deviations of 0.00 g for the
volumetric flask, 0.02 g for the graduated cylinder, and 0.14 g for the
beaker were obtained,” or “Standard deviations of 0.00 g, 0.02 g, and 0.14 g
were obtained for the volumetric flask, the graduated cylinder, and the
beaker, in that order.”). However, for the sake of clarity in your writing,
it is far preferable to list all data in the same order (for example, if you
choose to list the beaker data first, then always do so), and re-arranging
the order in a subsequent sentence should only be done if there is a really
good reason to do so.
One really good way to see if what you’ve written makes sense
is to read it out loud to someone else, or better yet, have someone else
read it out loud to you. If it doesn’t make sense to you and the other
person when read aloud, it needs to be re-written. When I was in grad school,
my major professor was in the process of having a paper published in a
scientific journal, and was at the point where he had received the galley
proofs to proofread. While he, personally, read over the proofs, he also
asked two people from his lab (who were less familiar with what he had
written) to help, with one of them reading the proof out loud to the other,
so that he had two, additional sets of ears and eyes helping with the
proofreading. Ask for help from friends or family members who are not
enrolled in this class.
Not as an official part of the abstract, but it would be most
helpful if you would indicate your lab section and seat number in the upper
right-hand corner of your paper. For example, if you use “2” to represent
the 2:00 lab or “4” to represent the 4:30 lab, then for example, “4-15” could
be used to represent seat #15 in the 4:30 lab section.
Here is a sample Abstract for an experiment we will be doing.
My software tells me this is 100 words long (it counts things like “20° C” as
two words). You are NOT to copy this, but do your own work:
J. L. S. 24 October 1994. Accuracy and precision of various glassware.
A 250-mL beaker, 100-mL graduated cylinder, and 100-mL volumetric flask were
filled in triplicate with 100 mL of 20° C distilled water. The average
weight of water and standard deviation were calculated for each vessel. The
average water weights were 96.75 g for the beaker, 100.85 g for the cylinder,
and 99.66 g for the flask (closest to the theoretical value of 99.82 g at
20° C, indicating greatest accuracy). Standard deviations of 0.14 g, 0.02 g,
and 0.00 g, respectively, indicate greatest precision was obtained with the
volumetric flask. Thus the volumetric flask was both the most accurate and
the most precise.
Use of the word “respectively” implies that items are
referenced in the same order as previously listed. Thus, the 0.02 g
mean deviation was obtained using the graduated cylinder, since both are
second in the listings.
Abstracts will be worth 10 points towards your total for the
quarter. They will be graded on the following areas (2 pt. each):
- Is there
a concise summary of the procedure?
- Is there
a concise summary of the data, pointing out important findings?
- Is there
a concise summary of the results/conclusions which highlights the
significance/implications of the findings?
- Is there
proper grammar, format, verb tense, use of passive voice, and spelling?
- Was a
word processor used?
Other Things to Include in Your Notebook
Make sure you have all of the following in your lab notebook:
- all handout pages (in notebook or separate protocol book)
- all notes you take on how to do an abstract
- any abstracts that are assigned (after they are graded and
Copyright © 2010 by J. Stein Carter. All rights reserved.
Based on printed protocol Copyright © 1994 J. L. Stein Carter.
This page has been accessed times since 18 Dec 2010.