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Abstracts, how do you write yours?

“By the way, deadline for abstract submission is April 2nd not 3rd!”

This week Easter is upon us and my lab is in an abstract deadline frenzy.  It occurred to me that conference abstracts are rather like Easter eggs.  Yes really, read on.

Wrapped up in shiny colourful paper, often with an enticing rattle coming from within, you wonder how to break into your egg; how do you eat yours?  But don’t you feel a little disappointed when faced with that hollow broken shell, even if you are temporarily distracted by a miniature something or other?  We are left wanting more.

A conference abstract (and these are different to the abstracts at the top of our publications) is effectively a sales pitch designed to attract an audience to your poster and/or presentation. We wrap up our aims, data and conclusions in a 300 word or so glittery package – but how do you write yours?

Are you purposefully vague in the hope of having gathered more results by the time it comes around?  Are you scared to reveal too much in case you get gazumped?  Own up, we have all written ‘hollow’ abstracts now haven’t we?  These are your Easter eggs.  The abstract is an eggshell without complete data; it is just the beginning of the story, a tease.  My view is that this is perfectly acceptable provided there is some data and you know what direction the results are taking.  For example in clinical studies it is common to review and release data at set time points.  You may also be highlighting a particular piece of interesting data and/or a new method.  Whatever the case, submitting an Easter egg enables you to gauge opinions and likely reviewer responses during the cause of the research.  Equally, it offers a chance to implement ideas and kick start collaborations at an earlier stage in the game.

Or…

Do you submit an abstract chock-a-block (no pun intended) full of data that is maybe even already published?  These are the creme eggs of conference abstracts.  They need no fancy advertising or gimmicks, they sell by reputation.  You may submit a creme egg to disseminate your soon-to-be or recently published research to a wider audience.  Fueled by the confidence that your data has already been peer reviewed you may even seek to present a talk instead of a poster, especially if you have acquired some important bonus data since publication.

There is a place and purpose for both types of abstract and I have no doubt you will write or have written both, likely with different objectives.  Personally, I don’t want to see a whole conference full of cream eggs where everything has already been published; I want to see new ideas and new data not just a million ‘posters of the paper’, especially at a niche conference where the audience is tight knit and will have already read them.

Conference abstracts pose a particular dilemma to early career researchers who are under pressure to develop and maintain a network.  I certainly remember scrambling up data for an Easter egg as I was (rightly) told no results, no abstract, no poster, no conference.  Can you afford to miss out on the opportunities to get noticed, to be selected for a talk and/or poster prize, especially when coming to the end of your PhD?  I won’t rehash the how-to’s readily available via Google but let me finish with some advice that is often overlooked:

  • Know your audience.  For example, if you are presenting basic science to a largely clinical conference you should pitch your abstract accordingly, what are the future clinical implications, what do clinicians need to know and why?
  • Consider the conference/session theme.  Where does your work fit in, what is the bigger picture?
  • Don’t rush.  Abstracts are worth your time and effort especially as they usually end up being published in some form or another.
  • Don’t use the same title more than once.  A particular bugbear of mine is using the same (or extremely similar) title for posters and papers; it looks damn right odd on your CV and author metrics.  If you need inspiration for a good title, I recently stumbled upon this gem of a post.

Sorry to anyone not familiar with Cadbury Creme Eggs, you must think I am completely bonkers!

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