Writing a Research Abstract: Getting Started Is the Hardest Part

March 2016 Vol 7, No 2
Staci Oertle, RN, MSN, APN, AOCNP
Oncology Nurse, MD Anderson Cancer Center at Cooper
Camden, NJ
Beth Yeadon, BSN, RN, OCN

Did reading the title of this article invoke feelings of curiosity, dread, or intimidation? For clinical nurses, these are not uncommon responses to words like “abstract” or “research.” Ironically, the nurses who creatively solve challenging patient problems every day are also experts in research in many ways. They may not be research experts in the traditional sense, but as nurses tenderly care for their patients by observing, assessing, implementing, monitoring, and collecting and measuring outcomes, they yield rich results of evidence-based data that can improve patient care and advance the body of knowledge in nursing. Nursing research provides evidence-based care that promotes quality health outcomes for patients, their families, communities, and healthcare systems.1

As oncology nurses, we have a common goal: to ensure that our patients receive quality, evidence-based care as we navigate them throughout the cancer continuum. This evidence-based care originates from research. Every day, oncology nurses have ideas and implement changes that improve patient or program outcomes. However, nurses do not often think that these ideas or changes are significant enough to be considered research, or think to share their new practice or program with others through publications or presentations. Identifying gaps in care, redesigning program flows, implementing outreach programs, using lay navigators or volunteers, and using creative ideas to assist patients in overcoming barriers to care can all be considered best practices and research.

Preparing to Write Your Abstract

Before getting into the “how-tos” of writing an abstract, a brief discussion of research is warranted. It is always best to keep things simple, especially for novices exploring their interest in research. Ask yourself these questions: What are you doing in your practice or specialty that has made a difference for your patients? What inspired you to do this? What evidence did you find to support this practice? How did you design your method for implementation? What were the results? Did this change or improve outcomes? Would others benefit from this knowledge? Nursing research can include exploring an area of clinical practice to improve patient outcomes and expand the body of knowledge available.

Getting started is the hardest part. First, answer the above questions and write down your answers. Second, clearly identify the clinical question, gap in knowledge, or problem you are trying to solve (or may have already solved). Third, do a literature search on the subject of your research or project. Compare other research that has been done on the same subject with your own. Has this already been done, and, if so, can it be replicated and useful to your practice? If it has not been done, can you use existing research to help guide your project or study? Last, decide what plans or interventions are needed, or which of these have worked successfully. Are the outcomes measurable, or has a change in practice been a result? If you have successfully answered these questions, you are already more than halfway there.

Basic Components of a Research Abstract

The research abstract is a short summary of your completed research or project, or a specific development of practice that you would like to share with others.2 The abstract needs to be coherent, concise, and understandable; this is usually the only part of the paper the reader can see when searching through electronic databases. In addition, the reader often uses the abstract to decide whether the article is worth reading or is useful for future research, studies, or papers. If the abstract is interesting and informative, the reader may pursue the article.

Even though the abstract appears first in the research article, it is usually written last.2 The basic components to research abstracts include the following:

  • Background. This section should briefly outline the background information of the study, including what is not known about the subject, and what the study intends to examine.3 The background should also include the motivation and problem statement, and explain why the research was done, why the research is important, and what practical, scientific, or theoretic gaps this study is trying to fill.
  • Objective. This section includes the study question, the main objective of the study, and the main problem the author is trying to solve.
  • Methods. This is the procedures and approach section of the abstract. It answers what and how the research was done, including the sample size, number of patients in different groups, setting of the study, and what research instruments or tools were used. This section should also include what treatments were used, and any primary outcome measures.
  • Results. This section should be the longest, and include details about the number of patients who completed and discontinued the study. The results section also includes details about response rates (eg, P values), and comprises positive and negative important findings from the study.
  • Conclusion. This section serves as the take-home message, and includes additional important findings, as well as the implications of those findings. Include whether the research question was answered or if the knowledge gap was filled, in addition to future research ideas or areas of study based on the outcomes of this study.

Review Existing Abstracts for Inspiration

Prior to writing an abstract, read other abstracts—specifically from the journal or conference to which you are submitting your paper—for ideas and examples to follow. A sample abstract is included in the Figure. Have a mentor or peer read the abstract to make sure it flows, and that it is accurate and concise. Remember the basics; grammar and punctuation are important. Make an outline using the basic components of an abstract, because then, when you are ready to write your abstract, you will have all of the information you need, and the task will not seem as daunting. Ask coworkers who are interested or have contributed to your study to help or join you; it is always easier when you share the workload with someone.


The editors of the Journal of Oncology Navigation & Survivorship provide detailed abstract submission guidelines that include requirements for publication in their journal. They are very friendly and extremely helpful, and will work with you to write a quality abstract. The categories for abstract and poster submissions for the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators include:

  • Category I: Patient Education
  • Category II: Psychosocial Support
  • Category III: Quality, Outcomes, and Performance Improvement
  • Category IV: Original Research on Navigation Programs
  • Category V: Original Research on Survivorship Programs
  • Category VI: Community Outreach and Screening Programs.4


There is a definite need for more clinical research that can be applied to clinical practice in today’s nursing journals.5 Significant, meaningful work is being done every day by practicing clinical nurses; they need to be encouraged, educated, and guided to engage in research. Mentors are needed to help clinical nurses realize their true potential, pursue these great ideas, and instill in them the confidence, motivation, and ambition needed to publish and share their hard work. Nurses, please consider submitting your ideas and projects, or mentoring a nurse who is interested in submitting their work. We learn from each other every day, and our patients benefit from this knowledge.5


  1. American Nurses Association. Nursing research. www.nursingworld.org/EspeciallyForYou/Nurse-Researchers. Accessed February 5, 2016.
  2. Fowler J. Writing for professional publication. Part 6: writing the abstract. Br J Nurs. 2011;20:120.
  3. Andrade C. How to write a good abstract for a scientific paper or conference presentation. Indian J Psychiatry. 2011;53:172-175.
  4. Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators. Call for abstracts. www.aonnonline.org/call-for-abstracts/. Accessed February 5, 2016.
  5. Fowler J. Writing for publication: from staff nurse to nurse consultant. Part 1: getting started. Br J Nurs. 2015;24:898.
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