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Question of the Day: Writing an Abstract

Question of the Day developed by William Prothero.


The purpose of this activity is to help you identify key components of a science paper, and clarify the purpose and content of an abstract.

A good abstract is just a brief description of the contents of a paper. Abstracts allow a busy reader to get a quick idea of the paper's contents and findings. The advantage is that a busy reader can make use of your hard work, even if he/she doesn't have the time to examine your findings in detail. If a report is extremely long, and will be read by a varied audience, an "Executive Summary" is often created. Again, this is so that the report will reach the widest possible audience.

The sample abstract below was taken from a science journal. In this abstract, find and mark sentences that accomplish the following functions:

a) What was done in the study?

b) Where was the study done?

c) Why is the study interesting?

d) What are the observations?

e) What are the interpretations?

f) What are the conclusions?

Sample Abstract

The recent intermediate-depth seismicity in northern Columbia and western Venezuela was analyzed to understand its origin and its presumed relationship to a subducted lithospheric slab in northwestern South America. The study area is located to the north and east of the Bucaramanga nest, which is a particular region in northern Columbia that presents a high concentration of intermediate-depth earthquakes. To the north of the nest, the seismicity of the area is sparse, and most of the events are of low magnitude (Mb<5.1). Thus only 23 earthquakes were large enough to be investigated using teleseismic data. The isodepth curves reflect a slab striking in the NNE-SSW direction and dipping approximately at 25o- 32o to the southeast. This observation is corroborated by the trend and plunge of the T axes of the focal mechanisms, which are generally parallel to the gradient of the slab defined by the spatial distribution of the hypocenters. These results indicate that the intermediate-depth earthquakes in western Venezuela and northern Columbia are apparently related to the presence of a continuous lithospheric slab subducted near the Northern coast of Columbia. The two largest earthquakes, located at a significant distance from the from the Bucaramanga nest, present similar fault plane solutions. Moreover, they also agree with those of the two largest earthquakes reported inside the nest. This similarity suggests that the Bucaramanga nest lies on the same subducted slab where the other earthquakes occur. There is not enough shallow seismic activity to define the location where the Caribbean lithosphere subducted beneath the South American plate. However, the extension of the slab toward the surface, inferred from the intermediate-depth seismicity, suggests that the subducted lithosphere may still be attached to the Caribbean plate.

References and Notes:

Question of the Day is a method used by Dr. William Prothero in his Oceanography Course at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

The Question of the Day page with more examples and tips on using them is part of the Starting Point: Interactive Lectures Module.