A Guide To Writing A Good Research Paper Summary

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Against the backdrop of a rapidly growing number of research papers being published, it is becoming increasingly important for researchers to know how to summarize a research paper effectively to make their work stand out among the noise. Writing a research paper summary is an important skill that will be put to use time and again in one’s academic career.

What is a research article summary and why is it important?

A research article summary is a concise and comprehensive overview of a research paper. A summary briefly restates the purpose, methods, findings, conclusions, and relevance of a study, faithfully recapitulating the major points of the work.

Summaries are useful because they inform readers of the key points of the original sources. Further, research paper summaries can be used to guide funding or policy decisions. Summaries are also important to promote one’s research to a wide audience; boiling down one’s work for a blog post is a good way to do this.

Most importantly, a well-written summary gives a good impression of the author’s understanding of the work: the quote “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it enough” rings true!

Structure and qualities of a good summary

A summary must be coherent and cogent and should make sense as a stand-alone piece of writing. It is typically 5% to 10% of the length of the original paper; however, the length depends on the length and complexity of the article and the purpose of the summary. Accordingly, a summary can be several paragraphs or pages, a single paragraph, or even just a sentence.

One-sentence summaries are becoming popular for promoting one’s research via social media. A one-sentence summary should be engaging, include the key points, and be within the recommended character/word limit (e.g., 280 characters for Twitter).

In a one-paragraph summary, each supporting point is addressed in a separate sentence (see Fig. 1).

Example of a one-paragraph summary (source: https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-021-01117-5).

In a multi-paragraph summary, each point is described in a separate paragraph. Such summaries generally have the following structure (the headings may vary):

  • Introduction: This begins with an overview of the article and ends with the main idea and hypothesis statement.
  • Body paragraphs: The number of paragraphs in the summary depends on the length of the original article. Each paragraph focuses on a separate main idea and the most important aspects of the study.
  • Concluding paragraph: This distils the main idea and the overarching significance of the article.

How to summarize a research paper

The approach for writing a full-scale research article is quite different from that for creating a succinct, digestible version of that very article. A summary should be written objectively and in a way that covers the article in sufficient detail—accurately yet briefly—to allow a reader to quickly absorb its significance.

3.1 Do some groundwork

  1. Skim the article to get a rough idea of each section and the significance of the content.
  2. Read the paper in more depth. Annotate the paper, marking or underlining key points, important phrases, and major headings and subheadings.
  3. Jot down notes on the major points and explanations (these notes should be in your voice; avoid lifting exact sentences from the article, even when taking rough notes).
  4. Organize your notes into an outline that includes main points but excludes examples or details like numbers and statistics.
  5. Assemble a skeleton draft by bringing together key evidence and notes from each paragraph/section.

3.2 Put it together
Start with an introductory paragraph that introduces the main idea. Put together similar ideas/concepts/findings in separate paragraphs. Use transition words and phrases for a smooth flow and to connect similar ideas. Make logical connections when dealing with cause and effect, comparison and contrast, and sequential order. Remember to use your own words. If you realize you are inadvertently using text from the original, go back to the notes you took in the previous step and build on them.

Sentences might be of the following tone and structure:

“In this study, we report (argue/demonstrate) that ____ (main idea).”
“A survey on ____ revealed ____.”
“_________________ (the topic) has major implications for ____.”

In the end, the article’s conclusion should appear in one sentence, e.g., “Our results emphasize that…” or “This study unravels …”

Once the summary is drafted, it should be checked against the original article to ensure that no essential information has been left out.

A checklist of dos and don’ts

4.1 Dos

  • Respect word limits provided.
  • Make sure you are not deviating from the overall picture.
  • Use an objective and impersonal tone.
  • Be concise. Avoid using padding phrases like “in other words.”
  • Revise your final draft thoroughly and proofread it carefully.

4.2 Don’ts

  • Use the same sentences from the paper. Instead use your own voice and paraphrase carefully.
  • Use too much technical jargon.
  • Add anything new. Findings that do not appear in the main text should not make their way into the summary.
  • Be afraid to use the first person and/or active voice.

Practice makes perfect

Mastering the skill of summarizing articles has other benefits too. Writing research paper summaries need not be limited to one’s own work. A researcher might be asked to write a summary of someone else’s paper as part of a critique. It is a good practice to write summaries of articles in the literature survey and research planning stages. These summaries can serve as condensed versions of a wealth of information on a particular topic to help one understand studies dealing with the same subject. Writing such summaries for yourself will help you hone the technique and soon, you will be summarizing your own work effortlessly!

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