What's in an abstract of a social scientific journal article?

An abstract is presented to the reader before the beginning of an article. The abstract briefly tells what the researchers did, how they did it, what they found, and what that means. More specifically, an abstract of an social scientific study will describe:

  1. the problem being investigated or question being answer,
  2. the subjects, along with key information about those subjects,
  3. the experimental method(s) used,
  4. the results of the study, including statistical significance levels; and
  5. what the results mean, both in the study and with regard to prior research, theories, and the world outside the research lab.

A properly written abstract will convey all that information in about 100 to 120 words. There should be no reason to refer to the article to understand jargon, abbreviations, or other oddities in the abstract.

Use abstracts to gain a first glance into journal articles. When you are researching a particular topic you can usually tell if a journal article pertains to that topic just by reading the abstract. If you determine that the article is relevant then be sure to read the entire article. Be aware that when a journal article reports multiple significant findings only the most important four or five will be mentioned in the abstract. When writing about a journal article never rely solely on the abstract (unless you absolutely cannot find the journal article, then be sure to cite the abstract, not the article).

Abstracts come in a variety of forms. The form you will most often see in social scientific research (and the information presented above) follows the guidelines put forth by the American Psychological Association. For more information refer to the Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (4th ed.) (1994).

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