Summarizing a research paper (or papers) sounds like it should be a pretty quick, easy task. After all, how hard can writing 200 words be?! But whether you’re writing a summary to include in your essay or dissertation, or you need to draft a compelling abstract for your own paper, distilling complex research into an informative, easy-to-read snapshot can be one of the most daunting parts of the research process. For that reason, it’s often the activity that gets left to last.
Having a few questions top of mind while you draft your summary can really help to structure your thoughts and make sure you include the most important aspects of the research. In short, every academic summary should cover ‘the why’, ‘the how’, ‘the who’ and ‘the what’ of a study. Asking yourself the following six questions as you start to think about your summary can help you to structure your thoughts and find the right words.
1. Why is this study necessary and important?
The ‘why’ can often be found in the first sentence of the introduction or background of a research article. Let’s have a look at a 2014 paper about plastic pollution in the world’s oceans (1) :
“Plastic pollution is globally distributed across all oceans due to its properties of buoyancy and durability, and the sorption of toxicants to plastic while traveling through the environment have led some researchers to claim that synthetic polymers in the ocean should be regarded as hazardous waste.”
Another quick way of identifying the ‘why’ of the research is to search for the subject of the study (eg. ‘Plastic pollution in the world’s oceans’) in Wikipedia. This can help inject wider significance into your research summary, for example:
The Abstract of this paper also points to a gap in the research – the lack of data on the amount of plastic waste in the Southern Hemisphere.
2. Who were the participants?
It’s good practice to include statistical information about the study subjects or participants in your summary. This will quickly tell your reader how well the key findings are backed up. This part of the summary can combine a short narrative description of the participants (eg. age, location etc); what was ‘done’ to the participants as part of the study; what impact the study had on the participants and a brief description of the control group.
3. What were the methods used?
How was the study carried out? What kind of materials were used to conduct the study and in what quantities or doses? Again, where possible include statistics here: number of materials; sample sizes; metrics (weight, volume, concentration etc). Here’s an example summary of a methods section from the above paper on ocean plastic:
“Net tows were conducted using neuston nets with a standard mesh size of 0.33 mm towed between 0.5 and 2 m s−1 at the sea surface for 15–60 minutes outside of the vessel’s wake to avoid downwelling of debris. Samples were preserved in 5% formalin.
Microplastic was manually separated from natural debris, sorted through stacked Tyler sieves into three size classes counted individually and weighed together.”
Including information about the consistency of methods or techniques used will help underline the credibility of the research.
4. What were the key findings of the study?
Stick to the high level, headline finding of the research here. What do the quantitative results of the study reveal that was previously unknown? Again, including statistics where you can will help reinforce the findings, but remember to keep it brief. Here’s an example from the same plastic pollution paper:
“Based on the model results, the authors estimate that at least 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing 268,940 tons are currently floating at sea.”
5. What conclusion was drawn from the research?
At this stage, try to focus on the overall outcome of the research, but also what makes the study both significant and novel. What was uncovered as part of the research that wasn’t previously known? Do the results of the study tell us something different to what was previously known or assumed?
In the plastic pollution paper, what was previously unknown was an estimate of the amount of plastic in the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere. The authors explain that their results confirm the same pattern of dispersal in the Southern Hemisphere as for the Northern Hemisphere:
“Surprisingly, the total amounts of plastics determined for the southern hemisphere oceans are within the same range as for the northern hemisphere oceans, which is unexpected given that inputs are substantially higher in the northern than in the southern hemisphere.”
6. What kind of relevance does the research have for the wider world? (the big why)
Rounding off your summary with a powerful statement that shows how the outcome of the research has a wider significance is good practice. The ‘big why’ can often be found in the Discussion or at the end of the Conclusion of a research article, and often in the Abstract as well.
Including clear, concise research summaries in your essay or dissertation can be very beneficial in strengthening your argument and demonstrating your understanding of complex research, all of which can help to improve your final grade. Using this six-point formula as a way of structuring your summary will also help you to think more critically about the research you read and make it easier for you to communicate your understanding both verbally and in writing.
Eriksen, M., Lebreton, L., Carson, H., Thiel, M., Moore, C., Borerro, J., Galgani, F., Ryan, P. and Reisser, J., 2014. Plastic Pollution in the World’s Oceans: More than 5 Trillion Plastic Pieces Weighing over 250,000 Tons Afloat at Sea. PLoS ONE, 9(12), p.e111913.