How to Read An Abstract

An abstract is a short summary of a research study. It’s generally freely available even when the full text of a study is behind a paywall. Because it’s so condensed, it does not tell the full story, and if you can get your hands on the full version, you absolutely should. (more on that in a future post!)

Let’s take a look at what you can expect to find in an abstract. Here’s one example, in two parts:

A: Publisher The place where it was published, including the volume and issue numbers.

B: Title Self explanatory!

C: Authors – it can be quite a few, so sometimes this is a whole paragraph!

D: The Document Object Identifier – this is a unique number that can be useful for finding the study again.

E: Disclosures Sometimes you’ll see a funding note like this disclosing who paid for the study. Sometimes that information is only in the full study.

1 Background – puts this study in the perspective of other research and gives the rationale behind why the researchers chose to do this study.

2 Methods A quick overview of the population studied, the variables tested, and the things they measured looking for outcomes.

3 Results Highlights the most notable findings in brief.

4. Conclusions The authors interpretation of what these results mean for clinical practice.

I chose this abstract for the nice, clear way it was laid out. Unfortunately, not all abstracts are as clear Let’s take a look at another:

While you can see that this one is nowhere near as complete as the first one, and isn’t laid out quite as well, it does add another element commonly found in abstracts:

5 Keywords – The keywords used in abstracts can be a huge clue in the hunt for other studies on the same topic, so if you’re in the middle of a search make note of them!

I hope this has been helpful!