By Guest Contributor Miranda A. L. van Tilburg, PhD
A Google search on how to write an abstract for submission to a medical conference will give you millions of hits. Most of these tell you what to write where, advise you to know the conference requirements such as word limits, and emphasize to write clearly and concisely. Yet despite this mountain of advice, abstract writing often goes awry. For over a decade, I have reviewed thousands of conference abstracts for national medical conferences such as Digestive Disease Week. In my experience, potentially good abstracts are rejected due to common issues with writing. Having the right mentorship is key, but not everyone has access to that kind of support, which increases inequities in academia between the haves (of publications and positions) and have-nots. So let me share my observations on some commonly made mistakes in submitted abstracts.
Mistake #1: Alignment
Scientific conference abstracts, like manuscripts, follow the IMRAD structure (= Introduction, Methods, Results, And Discussion). I will assume you are already familiar with IMRAD. The purpose statement is key, and last week’s blog post by Dagmar Gross (The Purpose Statement) delved into that topic. A common problem in abstracts is that the different sections are not aligned, i.e., they do not discuss the same thing from section to section. For example, the methods cannot answer the study purpose, or the conclusions do not follow from the results. A simple rule of thumb is to mention each study variable in every section of your abstract. No new variables should surprise your reader as they read along. This is not the only strategy to increase alignment, but it is a good start.
Mistake #2: Including only results
Abstracts are cruelly short. How can you include all your work in 350 words? Many novice writers assume it is best to give as much information as possible by making their abstract a long list of results without much else. Although understandable – you want to show your extensive work – this is ill-advised. Without the context of why you did this work (Purpose/Aim), how you did it (Methods) and what it means (Discussion), the results mean nothing to the reader. Remember why you are writing your abstract. What is your goal? It is to convince a reviewer to allow you to present your study in more detail at a conference. So focus on the main message, the main results and the main conclusions. For abstracts, quality definitely wins over quantity.
Mistake #3: Why should we care?
With so little space, the rationale and conclusions often become meaningless in an abstract. We have a tendency to emphasize the methods and results. However, the rationale and conclusion are some of the most important aspects. After all, the reviewer needs to be convinced that your study adds to solving a problem. Although recommended to be short (1-2 sentences), spend some time on why we should care and the impact of your study. Sell your work.
Mistake #4: The curse of knowledge
You have spent months to years on this project and with this patient population. This makes you blind to crucial details that are obvious to you, but confuse the reviewer. Remember that the reviewer also may not be an expert in your field. I often feel unqualified to review your abstracts, yet I am asked to give my opinion. To find your blind spots, ask a colleague who has not collaborated on this study to read the abstract and identify where you may need to explain more.
Mistake #5: Lack of graphs!
Many medical conferences allow you to include tables or graphs with your abstract. Please use this! Graphs/tables are easier to read than long swatches of text filled with numbers. In addition, it often frees up text in your abstract for other sections. An earlier Writing Tip on Creating Figures by Dagmar Gross has helpful suggestions for preparing graphs and other figures for publication.
Hopefully these tips and tricks will help you in creating an abstract that is slated for acceptance.
As a reviewer, I’d like to know more about your work. It is the best part of this thankless job. Help me along, and I will help you with a positive review.
Dr. van Tilburg is an Associate Professor of Clinical Research at Campbell University, Adjunct Professor of Medicine at the University of North Carolina, and Affiliate Associate Professor of Social Work at the University of Washington. She has been on abstract reviewing committees for 3 major national conferences since 2008, reviewing 100-200 abstracts each year, and she often sees good research that is ultimately rejected because of writing flaws. She can be followed on Twitter @DrvanTilburg.