How to write a scientific conference abstract

Continuing with my “How to” posts (also known by some as “Dave states the bleedin’ obvious”) this time I want to take a few wild swipes at abstract writing. The conference season will soon be upon us, so these next few posts will all be about various aspects of meetings, conferences and symposia. Abstracts are of course critical to meetings and conferences, whether small internal ones, or major international ones. As ever, most of these points should be pretty obvious, but that does not seem to stop endless numbers of people ignoring them and making major mistakes or having their abstracts rejected. I’ll actually be posting about presenting posters and talks in the future, as well as another list of blindingly obvious things to do when you are actually at the conference. Right, onto the abstract:

First of all, make sure you are going to go to the meeting. In many cases places are limited and it is frustrating for others if slots to speak or even just attend are taken up by people who don’t show up.

Next up, find out when the deadline end for the abstract submission, there’s no point in submitting a late one, or leaving yourself only a day to do it. Make sure you know what the word limit is and the format for submissions. Are you allowed figures? Are you allowed references? Some meetings allow for some extended abstracts that can be several pages long and act as a miniature paper so if you want to write one you might have to ask the meeting organiser, and again these take much longer to write so leave yourself sufficient time.

Read through several existing abstracts for previous meetings before you start. This should give you an idea of the style of abstract, what kinds of things the meeting is likely to be interested in (you won’t get a paper on turtle evolution into a dinosaur meeting without a very large dinosaurian twist) and how you should approach writing the piece.

Do not write about something you haven’t done yet, but for a project you have largely completed (or at least know what the results are and mean). If not, you have to guess what your results will show and you run a real risk of having to present results the opposite of what you announced in your abstract, or have none at all. This might not be so bad for the presentation, but many abstracts are recorded and are cited in publications, so if you abstract says ‘X correlated positively with Y’ then while those at the meeting might learn from you that it negatively correlates instead, plenty of other people won’t and until the paper is published (assuming it ever is, not all abstracts become papers) the wrong information is stuck in the literature.

Do make your abstract interesting and informative. That can be incredibly hard when you have only a couple of hundred words to play with, but it’s worth doing right. Take your time and do a good job, so that you are more likely to have your abstract accepted, and more likely to get the audience interested in attending your talk or reading your poster. Try to give the basic outlines of what you did and why: hypothesis, methods, results, conclusions. This can be done in very little space with practice. Once you have done this, it’s often a good idea to get a colleague to check what you have written, both to look for mistakes and to make sure it makes sense. I try to give mine to people who work outside of my field, if a geologist can work out what I am trying to say about dinosaur behavioural ecology, then the average palaeontologist should be fine.

Like many things (making posters, giving lectures, anatomical drawing) it takes practice, so take your opportunities to submit abstracts and practice writing them. Reading others is a great exercise and seeing what is good and bad about each one will give you excellent guidelines.

16 Responses to “How to write a scientific conference abstract”


  1. 1 Michael BW 18/02/2009 at 11:24 pm

    How about the straightforward approach:

    1 sentence introducing the problem
    1 sentence naming your method
    1 sentence stating the main result
    1 sentence giving a nearer explanation concerning the result or naming further results
    1 sentence discussing the result(s) under consideration of previous ideas and/or introducing a new model as a generalization of your results
    1 sentence putting the implications of your research in a larger context.

    A bit like the modest version of composing a Nature summary paragraph (http://www.nature.com/nature/authors/gta/Letter_bold_para.doc).

  2. 2 EMMANUEL ASIAMAH 04/12/2009 at 9:15 pm

    I am a biomedical scientist in clinical practice. I have developed a strong interest in research. At the pathology department where i work, i have seen vast of data which are good for research. It is my dream to become a histotechnologist research scientist.
    I will therefore need your assistance to enable me reach my goal.

  3. 3 nouslyKnona 09/09/2010 at 3:29 pm

    What a blogpost!! Very interesting… Looking for more posts like this!! Do you have twitter or an RSS feed?
    Anyway thank you for this blog.

  4. 5 please spellcheck 10/11/2010 at 12:33 pm

    Please spellcheck the article before posting – this IS a year old, but pops up in the forefront of google when searching the topic. In the very first paragraph there are two typos ['upong' and 'ain'].. I read on, but am surprised such words made it through…

    • 6 David Hone 10/11/2010 at 1:47 pm

      It made it through because I wrote these older posts without the benefits of a spell checker and the last time I checked, no one was perfect and mistakes happen, it’s hardly the end of the world.

  5. 7 Ada 28/01/2013 at 4:44 pm

    There is a very interesting discussion on the topic – “How to write abstract for conference when you have no results yet?” here:

    http://academia.stackexchange.com/q/7428/410

  6. 8 angielou 16/02/2013 at 4:23 am

    Sir/Madam:

    How does journal prep edit my conference abstract?

    Angie

  7. 10 Luizinho Caron 31/10/2013 at 1:09 am

    Please I would like to know, what is the reason to submit an abstract without results? Is it ethical or valid in biological science?

    • 11 David Hone 31/10/2013 at 10:29 am

      I think if you are honest about it, it is fine. New PhD students will often introduce the core of their research at a small meeting when of course they have little or no data let alone results and these explore ideas or the future work. Overall i don;t think it unethical, but as noted in the comments, people do show up to conferences and give talks that are very different to their abstracts showing they can’t have completed their work when the abstract was submitted. It’s not good, but it’s also quite common.


  1. 1 Things to do at a meeting « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 21/02/2009 at 11:16 am
  2. 2 How to give a talk « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 21/02/2009 at 12:25 pm
  3. 3 Blog Carnival Edition #5 -- Unbelievable Organisms, Titanoboa, Animatronics and More! | Dinosaur Tracking Trackback on 27/02/2009 at 11:46 pm
  4. 4 Avoiding abstracts « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 03/04/2009 at 8:57 am
  5. 5 Useful Links | Dave Attempts a PhD Trackback on 08/10/2012 at 1:45 pm

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