How to write a summary of a research paper (with template)

by Last updated Jun 27, 2020 | Published on Jun 27, 2020Writing Skills0 comments

In our daily work as medical writers, we have to read many scholarly articles and extract the main information from them. Having a process to retrieve that information and create a short summary that you can easily access will save you precious time. That’s why I decided to guide you through my process of summarising a research article and created a handy template.

Having short summaries of academic papers is useful to create news articles, press releases, social media posts, blog articles, or curated news reports, like the one I write weekly for my newsletter subscribers.

What’s the importance of summarising research articles?

If you don’t have a system to extract the main information from a scholarly paper, you may have to re-read it repeatedly, looking for that piece of information you know it’s there. Sure, you can use a highlighter pen to mark the main points, but sometimes what happens is that you end up with yellow walls of text. Or green. Or even a rainbow. Which may be pretty, but it’s quite useless as a retrieval system.

What also happens when you highlight text is that you end up with a diverse array of writing styles, none of them being your own. This way, when you try to write a text with information from multiple sources, you have to search for the information and write it in a consistent style.

In this article, I’ll show you how to retrieve the most relevant information from a scientific paper, how to write it in a compelling way, and how to present it in a news-worthy style that’s easily adaptable to your audience. Ready?

Three steps to summarise a research paper

1. Scan and extract the main points

First things first, so you have to read the paper. But that doesn’t mean you have to read it from start to finish. Start by scanning the article for its main points.

Here’s the essential information to extract from the research paper you have in front of you:

  • Authors, year, doi
  • Study question: look in the introduction for a phrase like “the aim of this study was”
  • Hypothesis tested
  • Study methods: design, participants, materials, procedure, what was manipulated (independent variables), what was measured (dependent variables), how data were analysed.
  • Findings: from the results section; fill this before you look at the discussion section, if possible. Write bullet points.
  • Interpretation: how did the authors interpreted their findings? Use short sentences, in your own words.

After extracting the key information , revisit the article and read it more attentively, to see if you missed something. Add some notes to your summary, but take care to avoid plagiarism. Write notes in your own words. If you can’t do that at this moment, use quotation marks to indicate that your note came straight from the study. You can rewrite it later, when you have a better grasp of the study.

2. Use a journalistic approach for the first draft

Some sources advise you to keep the same structure as the scientific article, but I like to use the journalistic approach of news articles and flush out the more relevant information first, followed by the details. This is more enticing for readers, making them want to continue reading. Yes, I know that your reader may be just you, but I know I have lost myself in some of the things I’ve written, so…keep it interesting, even for a future self 😊.

This is the main information you have to put together:

Title of the article: I like to keep the original article title for the summary, because it’s easier to refer back to the original article if I need to. Sometimes I add a second title, just for me, if the article title is too obscure or long.

  • 1st paragraph: Answer the 5 W’s in 3-4 sentences.

Who? (the authors)

What? (main finding)

When and where? (journal, date of publication)

Why? (relevance)

This should be a standalone paragraph, meaning that the reader should be able to take out the main information even if they just read this paragraph.

  • Subsequent paragraphs: In 2-3 paragraphs or less, provide context and more information about the research done. If you’re not sure if a detail is important or not, you can include it here and edit it out in the next step.

3. Polish the rough edges

In this stage, you’re going to make a quick edit, checking for completeness and accuracy. Make sure you’ve included all the main points without repeating yourself. Double-check all the numbers. Stay focused on the research questions to avoid tangents. Avoid using jargon and the passive voice whenever possible.

Final summary

Using this approach, you’ll end up with a short summary of your article that you can use to craft other types of writing, such as press releases, news articles, social media blurbs, and many others.

The advantages of summarising research articles are that you can better understand what the article is about, and you’ll have a text written by you, so it’s easier to adapt and you avoid unintentional plagiarism.

That’s it! My guide to write a research paper summary 😊

I’ve created a handout with all the information in this blog post plus a fill-in-the-blanks template that you can use to summarise research articles, you can download it using the form below. You’ll be signed up to my mailing list, and receive a weekly roundup of news in the biomedical industry as a bonus!

If you have any comments or questions, please let me know in the comment box below.

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    About Diana Ribeiro

    About Diana Ribeiro

    Diana Ribeiro is a pharmacist and freelance medical writer based in Cascais, Portugal. Before starting her career in medical writing, Diana worked 10+ years in hospital and community pharmacies, where she helped patients and healthcare professionals with drug management and information. Nowadays, she helps pharma, biotech, and meddev companies communicate with their audiences in a clear, accurate, and compelling way. Diana is an active member of the European Medical Writers Association, where she volunteers for the webinar team. You can find more about her on LinkedIn.

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