UNCG Biology 430 — Biological Evolution

Guidelines for Abstract Writing

Nearly every paper published in the sciences today is accompanied by an abstract. An abstract is a miniature version of the paper, able to stand on its own, which repeats all of the important conclusions of the work. Abstracts are often reproduced separately in publications such as Biological Abstracts, and they may be the only part of a paper that many people see. Abstract writing is thus an important skill that should be cultivated by all students in the sciences.


Students in this course will be required to submit two typed, one-page, single-spaced abstracts of chapters in The Origin of Species. These will be due 7 February and 28 March. You may write abstracts of any two chapters you wish. Do not expect to be able to write your abstracts the night before they are due: in order to write a good abstract you must have thoroughly absorbed the material (as a result of several readings), and must carefully condense it into the proper form. And good abstracts, not hasty summaries, are what are expected.

Common Errors in Abstract Writing

Often an abstract is written as though it were an introductory paragraph to the paper as a whole. An abstract is not an introduction: it is a free-standing miniature paper of its own, and should not make reference to the remainder of the paper. Thus in an abstract one should never say “The results discussed below demonstrate that Darwin was mistaken,” because when the abstract appears on its own in Biological Abstracts or some other indexing source, “discussed below” has no meaning. Similarly, one should avoid phrases like “I will show that Darwin was correct in his assertions,” because in isolation these phrases are also meaningless. “I will show” such-and-such means that you will show it somewhere in the next few pages, but for a reader examining only the abstract there are no more pages.

Often abstracts are written discursively, rather than declaratively. This is also a mistake. An abstract is a highly condensed piece of writing, and in an abstract one should dispense with many of the phrases that fill out ordinary prose. Instead of saying “We believe that Wallace was an unimportant figure” you should say “Wallace was an unimportant figure.” Replace “The research conducted by Mengel laid the foundations for further work in refuge theory” with “Mengel laid the foundations for later refuge theory.”

Format for Abstracts

Your submitted abstracts should be typed, single-spaced, and should fit within a rectangle 6 inches wide and 8.5 inches high. A sample page showing the required format will be provided. I have designed this format to be similar to those used at many scientific meetings where booklets of abstracts are printed for the attendees. Such booklets are reproduced photographically and abstracts that are included in them are required to follow strict guidelines.

Sample Abstracts to Illustrate Content and Style

Every scientific journal specifies the particular format in which its abstracts appear, and these vary slightly from one journal to the next. In most journals the authors’ addresses appear as part of the abstract, but in some journals, like Science, they appear at the bottom of the page. I will provide you with samples that illustrate many of the principles of abstract writing as well as some of the abstract formats used in scientific journals today. You should note in particular the declarative style that good abstracts use.

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