Academic Research Mini-Genre: Abstract

An abstract is a short document, usually a single paragraph, that accompanies a research article or student research paper. The abstract summarizes the main research questions and findings. Researchers often need to write abstracts before they publish their results.

For example, when submitting a proposal for a conference presentation, a researcher may need to include an abstract of their presentation—in some cases before they have even finished their research! In this case, the abstract summarizes the research project and what the researcher anticipates she will find.

Abstract for a Biology Article

Navarrete M, Perea G, Fernandez de Sevilla D, Gómez-Gonzalo M, Núñez A, et al. (2012) Astrocytes Mediate In Vivo Cholinergic-Induced Synaptic Plasticity. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001259

When we learn associations between items or ideas, such as the value of currency used in a foreign country, the connections between certain brain cells become stronger. In the cellular process thought to underlie learning and memory—long-term potentiation (LTP)—the simultaneous activation of two connected neurons causes one cell to respond more robustly to signals from the other one. “Neurons that fire together wire together” is a phrase commonly used to describe this phenomenon.

Recent studies suggest that neuronal communication and LTP are influenced by star-shaped glial cells called astrocytes, which are known to provide nutrients to neurons and support their basic functions. However, because much of this evidence was collected from brain slices and different research groups have produced conflicting results, scientists have questioned the involvement of astrocytes in learning.

This week in PLoS Biology, neuroscientist Alfonso Araque of the Cajal Institute in Madrid, Spain, and his collaborators report novel evidence of LTP regulation by astrocytes in living rats and propose a new cellular mechanism of learning and memory. Because this study suggests that astrocytes play an integral role in storing information in the brain, it resolves an important and high-profile debate in the field.

In the study, Araque and his team focused on pairs of neurons in the hippocampus, a brain region that is crucial for learning and memory. They generated LTP either by pinching the rat’s tail or through direct electrical stimulation of the neurons.

Using in vivo imaging techniques, the researchers also found that these manipulations boosted calcium levels in astrocytes, causing them to release the neurotransmitter glutamate. This chemical signal binds to and activates proteins called metabotropic glutamate receptors (mGluRs) located on the surface of nearby neurons, thereby enhancing LTP. Consistent with this chain of events, the team found that elevated calcium levels in astrocytes triggered an increase in neurotransmitter release from the neurons.

The researchers further determined that LTP only occurred when mGluRs were functional and when neuronal responses and calcium signaling in astrocytes were simultaneously evoked by stimulation. By regulating LTP through the activation of mGluRs, which are prevalent in the hippocampus, astrocytes may support learning in a range of situations and could be an important target for treating Alzheimer’s disease and other memory disorders.

Abstract for a Rhetoric Article

Mike Duncan, “Polemical Ambiguity and the Composite Audience: Bush’s 20 September 2001 Speech to Congress and the Epistle of 1 John”

Rhetoric Society Quarterly, Fall 2011, 41:5, pages 455-471

style==”margin: 0 0 20px;”>George W. Bush’s September 20, 2001 address to Congress and the 1st century CE early Christian text of 1 John both exhibit a form of rhetorical ambiguity, called here “polemical ambiguity,” that does not fit within Eisenberg’s concept of strategic ambiguity, but rather serves as its argumentative doppelgänger. Polemical ambiguity allows a rhetor to leave real and potential allies in a composite audience in doubt as to the exact parameters of the rhetor’s message, while an alienated section of the composite audience perceives a stark and wholly unambiguous message. The following analysis explores how Bush’s speech and 1 John, faced with composite audiences, pursue similar goals through the use of polemical ambiguity, as well as how this particular maneuver is closely linked to religious rhetoric.

Abstract for a Political Science Article

Jessica Ross, “Closing Guantanamo Bay: The Future of Detainees,” NeoAmericanist, 2010, 5:1

At the start of his presidency, Barack Obama issued an Executive Order to shut down the naval base at Guantanamo Bay and halt all detainees’ trial proceedings pending the creation of a review process. Legal scholars and White House advisors made suggestions regarding how to shut the prison down and what to do with its occupants. In this paper, I will argue that detainees should be tried in federal courts and sent home or transferred to prisons within the United States. I will examine the nature of the President’s Executive Order and documents outlining traditional protections granted to detainees including the Geneva Conventions, the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and Supreme Court rulings. An analysis of how to proceed with the adjudication of detainees will follow. My findings illustrate that the most efficient solution to these problems is to implement domestic parole programs and try detainees in US federal courts.

Use the Toolkit

Let’s use the three genre toolkit questions from Chapter 1 to examine this genre.

What is it?

The above three documents are all examples of abstracts. Each one provides a short summary of an academic research article. Abstracts usually contain the title of the article, the author’s name(s), the main claims of the article, the research methods, and the methods of analysis. You’ll also see that abstracts sometimes include a set of keywords that go along with the article—these are search terms readers might use to find similar articles. You will notice that abstracts use specialized vocabulary from the field in question: the first abstract refers to the “in vivo imaging techniques,” while the second one refers to terminology from rhetoric studies, such as “strategic ambiguity.”

Who reads it?

Abstracts often appear before a full article. Researchers may read the abstract first, and then decide whether to read the entire article. Students also find abstracts useful when conducting research, since the abstract will tell them whether articles are relevant to their projects. Abstracts may also be read by other audiences; for example, a journalist may use an abstract to write a news article about a new scientific finding.

What’s it for?

An abstract provides a brief overview of the article, helping potential readers to decide whether or not to read the article. You’ll also notice that abstracts tend to give away the main claim or findings—that is, an abstract does not leave readers guessing about what an article contains.