The examples below are from 94,745 full-text PubMed research papers that I analyzed in order to explore common ways to start writing the Abstract.
Research papers included in this analysis were selected at random from those uploaded to PubMed Central between the years 2016 and 2021. Note that I used the BioC API to download the data (see the References section below).
Examples of how to start writing the Abstract
The Abstract should provide a summary of each section of your paper. It can be divided into subheadings if the journal allows it (refer to the journal’s “Instructions for Authors”). [for more information, see: How to Write & Publish a Research Paper: Step-by-Step Guide]
The Abstract can:
1. Start by summarizing the present state of knowledge
For example, here’s the first sentence of the Abstract of a study that wanted to test the 5-year effect of a telephone-based intervention to increase fruit and vegetable consumption in children:
“Little is known about the long-term impact of telephone-based interventions to improve child diet.”Source: taken from the Abstract of this PubMed article
The beginning of this Abstract emphasizes the lack of previous studies on the topic.
2. Start by demonstrating the importance of the topic
For example, here’s the first sentence of the Abstract of a study on breast cancer testing:
“Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in women, with 10% of disease attributed to hereditary factors.”Source: taken from the Abstract of this PubMed article
By highlighting the prevalence of breast cancer, the authors showed that the topic of their study is important.
3. Start by showing the gap in previous literature
For example, here’s the first sentence of the Abstract of a study on the incidence of cancer in diabetics treated with metformin:
“Previous studies evaluating the effect of metformin on cancer risk have been impacted by time-related biases.”Source: taken from the Abstract of this PubMed article
This emphasizes the way the present study fixes problems found in previous literature.
4. Start by mentioning the study objective
In the following example, the authors skipped the small (usually one-line) introduction to the subject and started the Abstract with the study objective:
“The purpose of this study was to examine the correlation between the foot arch volume measured from static positions and the plantar pressure distribution during walking.”Source: taken from the Abstract of this PubMed article
5. Start with a question
Here’s an example:
“In this article, we address an apparent paradox in the literature on mental time travel and mind-wandering: How is it possible that future thinking is both constructive, yet often experienced as occurring spontaneously?“Source: taken from the Abstract of this PubMed article
If you want some conflicting opinions on whether or not you should start your Abstract with a question, I suggest the following article on Stack Exchange.
But here’s what the data on 94,745 Abstracts have to say on the subject:
- It is uncommon for an Abstract to start with a question: only 82 (0.09%) of the Abstracts in our sample started with a question.
- On average, starting the Abstract with a question is associated with a lower quality article: the median article whose Abstract start with a question is published in a journal with an impact factor of 2.81 compared to 3.15 for the rest of the articles in the sample.
Common words used to start an Abstract
Here’s a list of the most common words used at the beginning of the Abstract:
- “To investigate the…”
- “To evaluate the…”
- “To assess the…”
- “To determine the…”
- “In this study,…”
- “The present study…”
- “In this paper…”
- “In recent years…”
- “Little is known about…”
- “It is well known that…”
- “This study aimed to…”
- “The present study aimed to…”
- “The aim of this study…”
- “The purpose of this study…”
- “The objective of this study…”
- Comeau DC, Wei CH, Islamaj Doğan R, and Lu Z. PMC text mining subset in BioC: about 3 million full text articles and growing, Bioinformatics, btz070, 2019.