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.