• Jake Magnum

How to Write an Abstract Before You Have Obtained Your Results

Updated: Jul 5

When you need to produce an abstract for research that has not yet been carried out, you should write what is known as a descriptive abstract. In this type of abstract, you explain the background, purpose, and focus of your paper but not the results or conclusion.

Obviously, it is preferable to write the abstract for your research after you have obtained your results. While you might be under pressure to submit an abstract months before your research has been completed, it is still best to postpone writing your abstract until you have your results if this is at all possible. The advice given in this article is intended for authors who have no choice but to submit an abstract before they have their results.


Guidelines and Tips for Writing an Abstract without Results


When you need to write an abstract but haven’t yet gathered your results, you can write a descriptive abstract. While these are typically used for papers written in the humanities and social sciences, you may adapt them to a scientific work if you have no other option — for example, if you need to submit an abstract eight months before your research is scheduled to be completed.


A typical descriptive abstract accomplishes three things — namely, it (1) provides background information about your study topic, (2) expresses the purpose of your study, and (3) explains what you will do to accomplish your study’s purpose. Descriptive abstracts do not usually make any mention of a study’s results. However, if a description of the results is a general requirement for your abstract, you can briefly state that you intend to express your results at a later time (after you have gathered your data).


This article will guide you through writing all three parts of a descriptive abstract for a scientific paper. Afterward, examples of full abstracts written in this style are provided.


1. Background: Give general information about your topic.


The background section of a descriptive abstract is longer than that of an informative abstract (which is the abstract style used in most scientific works). The background information provided in an informative abstract is often restricted to two sentences, one mentioning the study topic and the other introducing the general problem to be addressed. A further discussion of these kinds of abstracts can be found here. In a descriptive abstract, you can use two sentences for each of these purposes, which allows you to give more detailed background information.


Examples


The background section of an informative abstract might read as follows:


Body dissatisfaction has adverse effects on women of all ages. However, research suggests that women can apply self-compassion to reduce body dissatisfaction and create a positive body image instead. This paper aims to…

In this example, the author very quickly lets the reader know the overall topic of their paper (body dissatisfaction among women) and what avenue of this topic they will explore. They then immediately transition into discussing the purpose of their paper.


If the author had written a descriptive abstract instead, the background section might look like this:


Body dissatisfaction has adverse effects on women of all ages. It has been linked to low self-esteem, depression, social anxiety, and eating disorders. These problems can be made worse when a woman criticizes herself because of her body. Conversely, practicing self-compassion, which entails being warm towards oneself when recognizing one’s failures or inadequacies, can reduce body dissatisfaction and help to create a positive body image. This paper aims to…


In this second example, the author uses an extra sentence to list some of the specific adverse effects of body dissatisfaction. The author also defines the key term of “self-compassion” to give non-experts of the subject a better understanding of the topic.


2. Purpose: Describe the general problem that your research aims to explore.


This part of a descriptive abstract is typically made up of a single sentence. Here, you should describe your purpose for conducting your research work. This sentence should be more specific than the preceding sentences, as it should describe the specific constructs that the study will investigate. Unlike the other parts of a descriptive abstract, the sentence describing the study’s purpose should be the same as it would appear if you were writing an informative abstract.


Example


This paper aims to explore sources of positive and negative body image by investigating whether the association between self-esteem and body image avoidance behaviors is mediated by self-compassion and appearance contingent self-worth.


This example was taken from an informative abstract but could just as well be included in a descriptive abstract.


3. Focus: Explain what you intend to do to solve the problem.


Normally, you would now describe what you did to accomplish your research goal. However, if you have not yet carried out your research, you have nothing to report. As such, you should instead explain what you intend to do to accomplish your goal. It is best to be specific regarding what tools you will use and what parameters you will measure.


Examples


In an informative abstract, the author could express the focus of their research as follows:


Using a multiple mediation model, we assessed the responses of 222 female participants who completed the Body Image Avoidance Questionnaire.


Here, the author quickly explains who the participants were, what the researchers measured, and what tool they used.


If you are writing a descriptive abstract because you do not yet have your results, then this part of your abstract will be different in two ways. First, you will have to leave out information that you do not have (e.g., the number of participants). Second, you cannot write this sentence in the past tense since you haven’t done anything yet. If the example sentence above were part of a descriptive abstract, it might read as follows:


We will employ a multiple mediation model to assess the responses given by a group of females to the Body Image Avoidance Questionnaire.


Here, the author has not included the number of participants, and they have stated what they will do rather than what they have done.


Do not in any way express what you expect or hope to find.


If you were writing an informative abstract, the next step would be to describe your results. If you are writing a descriptive abstract instead, you might be tempted to describe what you expect or hope to find. However, this should be avoided, as it reflects a lack of scientific integrity and will be perceived as misleading if you do not obtain the expected results.


On this note, you must be very careful about how you express the purpose of your study. To clarify this, I will revisit a previous example.


This paper aims to explore sources of positive and negative body image by investigating whether the association between self-esteem and body image avoidance behaviors is mediated by self-compassion and appearance contingent self-worth.


The use of the word “whether” is crucial in this sentence, as it expresses doubt. That is, it indicates that you don’t know what you will find. Therefore, no matter what results you obtain, this sentence cannot be considered misleading.

The following example includes a subtle change in wording, but it changes the implied meaning of the sentence:


This paper aims to explore sources of positive and negative body image by showing that the association between self-esteem and body image avoidance behaviors is mediated by self-compassion and appearance contingent self-worth.


“Investigating whether” has been changed to “showing that.” Because of this change, the author is now claiming that they will obtain a certain result (i.e., that self-compassion and appearance contingent self-worth mediate the relationship in question). This statement will be considered misleading if either variable does not turn out to be a mediating factor.


Examples of Abstracts without Results


I will begin with an abstract from the field of English literature, where descriptive abstracts are common. Afterward, I will provide a second example that shows how you can adapt this style to an abstract written in a scientific field.


Example #1


(1)Revolutions are considered as a way to replace a situation or system of government with a better one. (2)However, many writers have addressed the question of whether revolution really is the right way to improve people’s lives or if it merely changes the faces of rulers or the names of governments. (3)George Orwell, who was considered an apolitical writer, is one of the writers who tackled this issue. (4)His novella Animal Farm is an allegorical story of some animals living on a farm who successfully revolt against their owner, only to create a dystopia in the end. (5)This paper aims to explore the nature of revolution throughout human history in general and how this phenomenon is treated by Orwell in his novella. (6)Specifically, we intend to use examples from Animal Farm to investigate whether we should consider revolution as an appropriate way to generate a true change in a political system and in the way people think.


The above abstract is a modified version of the abstract from “The Nature of Revolution on Animal Farm.” It contains the three main parts that have been described in this article:


  • First, Sentences (1)-(4) provide background information for the present study. In sentence (1), the author makes a very broad statement about a widespread topic (i.e., revolutions). Sentence (2) describes the general problem that the paper addresses. The author then gets more specific in Sentences (3) and (4), mentioning a specific writer and a specific novella.

  • Second, the author states their purpose for writing the paper in Sentence (5), indicated by the introductory phrase “this paper aims to.” Notice that the purpose stated in this sentence is quite general, though it is more specific than the problem described in Sentence (2).

  • Third, in Sentence (6), the author explains what particular question they intend to answer (i.e., “Should we consider revolution as an appropriate way to generate a true change in a political system?”), and they mention what tools they will use to do this (i.e., examples from Animal Farm).

Example #2


(1)The physical self has been considered one of the most important factors impacting global self-esteem. (2)Moreover, the physical self has recently become widely accepted as a multidimensional construct that contains several specific perceptions across various domains. (3)However, limited research has examined the physical self of athletes with physical disabilities, especially in Middle-Eastern countries. (4)Therefore, the purpose of this study is to explore the physical self-esteem and global self-esteem of wheelchair basketball players from Middle-Eastern countries. (5)Using the Physical Self-Description Questionnaire (PSDQ) as a measurement tool, this study aims to determine (i) whether there is a correlation between physical self-esteem and global self-esteem and (ii) which of the nine domains of the PSDQ (Health, Coordination, Activity, Body Fat, Sport Competence, Appearance, Strength, Flexibility, and Endurance) are correlated with physical self-esteem.


The above abstract is a modified version of the abstract of the article entitled “Physical self-esteem of wheelchair basketball players.” It has the same three main parts as the first example:


  • First, Sentences (1)-(3) are devoted to providing the background of the study. Specifically, Sentences (1) and (2) describe the general topic that will be investigated, while Sentence (3) states the general problem that the author intends to explore.

  • Second, in Sentence (4), the author states the overall purpose of their study by explaining what aspect of the issue mentioned in Sentence (3) they will be tackling.

  • Third, Sentence (5) describes the specific questions that the study will address (i.e., “Is there a correlation between physical self-esteem and global self-esteem, and which of the nine domains of the PSDQ are correlated with physical self-esteem?”). It also lets the reader know what kind of data will be used to answer these questions (i.e., PDSQ scores). Notice that the authors do not state that they expect to find any correlations.