Abstracts, Structured Abstracts, and Executive Summaries


An Abstract/Summary/Structured Abstract or Executive Summary is a separate document provided prior to the main text of a thesis, research paper or report. Its function is to outline key elements of the thesis, article or report to follow.

Location of an Abstract in relation to rest of a paper

It can either be written in continuous prose or in sections with headings called a Structured Abstract (see below).

In a paper or report an Abstract is located before the Introduction, quite often on a separate page, and sometimes before a Table of Contents (in the case of a report).

Abstracts are sometimes called ‘Summaries’ and these terms are often synonymous. However Executive Summaries have an additional purpose beyond simply providing a summary. There is often confusion around the terms Abstract, Structured Abstract and Executive Summary. We deal with the similarities and differences here.

What is the role of the Abstract?

The Abstract or Summary has a unique role in academic writing. It provides an overview for what is about to be read. This is done for two main reasons:

  • to help the reader decide whether to read the article/thesis/report; or
  • to provide the reader with a document that acts as a replacement for reading the article/thesis/report. (An Executive Summary, which functions like an Abstract in Business reports, is normally read by busy executives as a replacement for reading the main text, i.e., it is the only thing they read.)

Scholarly abstracts are typically read to decide if the main paper is worth reading before going on to do so—not as a replacement. Scholarly databases provide abstracts for this reason. The Library has access to many databases that give access to journal articles. These typically provide access to the publication information of articles and Abstracts containing a summary of the aims and contributions of articles.

Scholarly abstracts are normally around 200-500 words—around 5 percent of the Body of the paper. They are tightly and clearly written and usually composed when the last draft of the paper has been written and when the author knows exactly the contribution of their paper.

As they have a different purpose, Executive Summaries are normally much longer–up to 15 percent of the Body of the report or paper. Executive Summaries also focus on recommendations for action; Abstracts rarely do this, they instead focus on the scholarly contribution of the paper. So Abstracts and Executive Summaries are different. The latter are longer and focus on recommendations.

Abstracts/Summaries

Abstracts are written in a way to mirror the sections of the paper/thesis to follow. Therefore the content of an Abstract can vary slightly depending on the sections a paper contains. An empirical paper, for example. has sections that a discursive paper in the Humanities does not have. Although there are discipline-specific variations, Abstracts are generally written as follows:

  • Background information (present tense)
  • Principal activity (present or present perfect tense)
  • Methodology (past tense)
  • Results (past tense)
  • Conclusions (present tense/tentative verbs and or modal auxiliaries)

Typically Abstracts do not contain citations although there are discipline-specific variations here too.

Sections identifiedAbstract [excerpt only]
1. Background information (present tense)
This project proposes a strategic planning model for P. T. Polysindo Eka Perkasa …

2. Principal activity (present or present perfect tense)
The model is developed by combining … and …

3. Methodology (past tense)
A SWOT analysis and a review of the company’s mission was used to …

Results (past tense)
The SWOT analysis indicates that P. T. Polysindo faces three main strategic issues …

Conclusions (present tense/tentative verbs and or modal auxiliaries)
The report recommends that the company …
This project proposes a strategic planning model for P. T. Polysindo Eka Perkasa which is currently unavailable. The model is developed by combining … and … A SWOT analysis and a review of the company’s mission was used to … The key policies were then translated into actions necessary in each of the key areas of marketing, human resources, operations and finance. Internal scanning revealed how the company’s net sales will continue to … The SWOT analysis indicates that P.T Polysindo faces three main strategic issues arising from internal weaknesses and threats from its external environment.  This report suggests that these problems  … The report recommends that the company should consider increasing working capital turnover and pursue aggressive collection procedures.
Sample Abstract 1

Another abstract is provided below.

Sections identifiedAbstract [excerpt only]
1. Background information (present tense)
Accreditation of ISO 9000 continues to grow. … Whilst manufacturing organisations were early adopters … 

2. Principal Activity (past tense/present perfect tense).
 In this paper, attitudes towards the standard were compared to determine if there were significant …
 
2. Methodology (past tense).
Empirical data was taken from a survey of 149 service …

4. Results (past tense).

Results showed that differences were not insignificant …

5. Conclusions (present tense/ tentative verbs and modal auxiliaries The implication of the results suggest that service organisations need to be careful …
Accreditation of ISO 9000 continues to grow. Whilst manufacturing organisations were early adopters, in recent years, many organisations  from the service sector have pursued accreditation. In this paper, attitudes towards the standard were compared to determine if there were significant differences between the views of manufacturing and service organisations. Empirical data was taken from a survey of 149 service and 160 Australian manufacturing organisations. Results showed that differences were not insignificant, particularly in terms of the benefits sought. For example, … The implication of the results suggest that service organisations need to be careful when applying the lessons learnt from the experiences of the manufacturing sector to overcome the problems associated with the implementation of ISO 9000. Further, the results of this study lend support to the argument that the standard is not universally applicable and may need industry-specific tailoring.
Sample Abstract 2

A third example is provided below.

Sections identifiedAbstract [excerpt only]
1. Background information (present tense)
Developing optimum solutions to engineering problems typically relies on …

2. Principal activity (present or present perfect tense)
A state-of-art review of practical interventions that target the development of CT in engineering students is presented.

3. Methodology (past tense)
The review selected 25 selected peer-reviewed journal articles in established engineering databases and focussed on …

4. Results (past tense)
Considerable variability in the reviewed literature was apparent.

Conclusions (present tense/tentative verbs and or modal auxiliaries)
To more robustly and holistically ensure that CT is clearly embedded in university curricula, there needs to be …
Developing optimum solutions to engineering problems typically relies on structured and complex thought processes that require evaluation, interpretation and opinion. Well-developed critical thinking (CT) skills are essential for dealing with the multi-dimensional nature of these problems. CT in an engineering context is well reported in teaching and learning academic literature. However, much of this is framed within theoretical and conceptual frameworks. Practical approaches of how CT skills are best promoted in engineering curricula are less common. A state-of-art review of practical interventions that target the development of CT in engineering students is presented. The review selected 25 selected peer-reviewed journal articles in established engineering databases and focussed on teaching strategies where their effects in promoting CT skills in students are measured. Considerable variability in the reviewed literature was apparent. CT interventions and strategies are often reported, but metrics of their success in enhancing students’ CT is often limited to qualitative, subjective inferences. To more robustly and holistically ensure that CT is clearly embedded in university curricula, there needs to be well-funded research programmes that allow different methods to be developed and trialled over extended periods in higher education engineering programmes.
Sample Abstract 3

For a downloadable helpsheet, see: Abstracts and Executive Summaries.

Structured Abstracts

A Structured Abstract has the same broad role as an Abstract, i.e., to provide an outline of the paper to follow. They occur in specific discipline areas, usually the sciences. It is distinguished by explicit labelling of the various parts of the abstract. They can be up to five pages long for conference submissions, e.g., Academy of Marketing Science. A structured abstract has clearly distinct section headings as stipulated by the journal. These consist of obligatory and optional headings. Obligatory headings might include:

  • Purpose/Objective
  • Design/Methodology/Methods
  • Findings/results
  • Originality
  • Conclusions

Optional headings might include:

  • Population
  • Background
  • Setting
  • Participants
  • Intervention
  • Outcome measures
  • Social implications
  • Practical implications

The structured headings differ depending on type of article. Theoretical paper typically have sections such as:

  • Background
  • Purpose
  • Sources of Evidence
  • Main Argument
  • Conclusions

Literature review papers might have headings such as the following:

  • Background
  • Purpose
  • Design and methods
  • Conclusions

In this example below the labels for the sections are slightly different from a typical scholarly abstract, but mean the same thing: Background information and principal activity = Objective, and Conclusions = Discussion. A Structured Abstract might be followed by Key Words as is done here. This is a list of the important words used in the paper for indexing purposes.

Example of a Structured abstract
Objective: Sleep disorder is one of the most classic symptoms of patients with bipolar I disorder (BID), which affects their quality of life (QOL). The current study aimed to determine the relationship between sleep quality and quality of life in patients with bipolar I.

Methods: In this descriptive cross-sectional study, 180 patients with bipolar I disorder were selected using convenience sampling in Farshchian Psychiatric Center of Hamadan, Iran, in 2017. The data collection instruments were Pittsburgh Sleep Inventory and Brief Quality of Life Questionnaire. Data analysis was performed using Pearson’s correlation coefficient and stepwise multiple regression by SPSS 23.

Results:  The results indicated that 41.1% and 54.4% of patients with bipolar I disorder experienced low level of sleep quality and QOL, respectively. There was a statistically significant relationship between sleep quality and QOL (r=-0.571, p<0.001), so that low sleep quality has a negative impact on the QOL in these patients.

Discussion: Patients with bipolar disorder suffer from sleep disorder affecting their QOL. Therefore, it is suggested that treatment and care interventions be designed and implemented to improve sleep quality and patients’ QOL. Moreover, treatment interventions of bipolar disorder are inseparable from the treatment of sleep disturbance.

Keywords: Bipolar I Disorder; Quality of Life; Sleep Quality.

Executive Summaries

An Executive Summary has a similar role as an Abstract in terms of providing an outline of the contents of the paper to follow. However, they differ in emphasising recommendations and action items. They also often use bullet pointed lists; this is not done in scholarly abstracts.

An example is provided below.

Sections identifiedExecutive Summary [excerpt only]
Overall contribution/purpose/topicThis report provides an analysis and evaluation of the current and prospective profitability, liquidity and financial stability of Outdoor Equipment Ltd. Methods of analysis include trend, horizontal and vertical analyses as well as ratios such as Debt, Current and Quick ratios. Other calculations include rates of return on Shareholders Equity and Total Assets and earnings per share to name a few. All calculations can be found in the appendices. Results of data analysed show that all ratios are below industry averages. In particular, comparative performance is poor in the areas of profit margins, liquidity, credit control, and inventory management.
Report findingsThe report finds the prospects of the company in its current position are not positive. The major areas of weakness require further investigation and remedial action by management.
Recommendations for actionRecommendations discussed include:
—improving the average collection period for accounts receivable;
—improving/increasing inventory turnover,
—reducing prepayments and perhaps increasing inventory levels.
Limitations of reportThe analysis conducted has limitations, including:
—forecasting figures are not provided
—nature and type of company is not known
—the current economic conditions
—there are data limitations as not enough information is provided or enough detail i.e. monthly details not known; results are based on past performances, not present.
Example of an Executive Summary

Abstracts and Introductions

An Abstract has a different function from an Introduction. The role of the Abstract is to help a reader decide whether to read a paper and to provide a concise overview of each section. The role of an Introduction is to provide a background to a study and to expose the research gap. We look at Introductions on another page of this site.

For a downloadable helpsheet, see Abstracts, Structured Abstracts and Executive Summaries. See also: