Distracted by abstracts: Tips for writing a good abstract for a scientific conference

ParsonsDr. Chris Parsons has been involved in whale and dolphin research for over two decades and has been involved in research projects in every continent except Antarctica. Dr. Parsons is an Associate Professor at George Mason University as well as the undergraduate coordinator for their environmental science program. He’s a member of the scientific committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC), has been involved in organizing the International Marine Conservation Congress (IMCC) (the world’s  largest academic marine conservation conference) and is currently the Conference Chair and a Governor of the Society for Conservation Biology. In addition, Dr. Parsons has published over 100 scientific papers and book chapters and has written a textbook on marine mammal biology & conservation.

I have just read and reviewed through close to 100 scientific abstracts for a conference, and my main conclusion is that ” ‘abstract’ – this does not mean what you think it means!”

An abstract is supposed to be a concise summary of your entire paper or study. Basically a written version of the 30 second “elevator pitch”. In these days of information overload there is so much emphasis on publishing, and so many journals willing to accommodate, the number of articles in scientific fields has increased rapidly. As a result, academics are increasingly reading no further than the abstract, and often only reading the title. To test this I looked at some of my papers where the website they were hosted by kindly provided statistics on abstract page views and actual download rates. The download rates were approximately only 10% that of the abstract views across the papers (and I am naively hopeful that at least some of a downloaded paper will be read). The figures were similar for other articles, so it wasn’t just my papers. So 90% of people who see your work probably won’t go beyond your abstract. This makes it vitally important that all the information you want to convey about your work is in the abstract.

However, in a frighteningly high proportion of abstracts the key results and conclusions of studies are not even mentioned. One of the abstracts I read in this latest batch noted that the methods, results  and the conclusions of the study “would be discussed”. As an abstract this is useless. Too frequently place holder abstracts are submitted to conferences, with the assumption that results will magically appear before the meeting. But if you don’t manage to get that analysis done, you’ll be giving a presentation that will be lacking, will embarrassing you and damage your career. Moreover, a lot more people will see your abstract than will actually get to your presentation, so professional opinions may be made on you by the quality of your abstract rather than the final presentation. Plus abstract books are physical entities, whether electronic or hard copy, and will be around a lot longer than your 10 minute presentation.   So for your professional image and also for the sake of communicating your study it is in your interests to produce a good abstract.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions on abstract structure.

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