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    BASICS << Writing a conference abstract

    Writing a conference abstract
    Published 5 February 2009, written by Jane Fraser, Louise Fuller and Georgina Hutber

    Conference abstracts are an integral part of any publication plan, and writing them is an everyday task for most professional medical writers. An effective abstract can play a significant part in achieving acceptance of oral presentations or posters at medical conferences. Here are ten top tips, adapted from Creating Effective Conference Abstracts and Posters: 500 tips for success by Jane Fraser, Louise Fuller and Georgina Hutber (Radcliffe Publishing, 2009).

    Check the instructions carefully

    Check the organiser’s instructions carefully for guidance on matters such as word or character count, use of abbreviations, length of the title, and how to cite the authors and their affiliations. Increasingly, clinical conferences ask for structured abstracts based on the CONSORT format. This includes headings such as background, objectives, design, setting, patients, interventions, outcomes, results and conclusion. The CONSORT Group recently published a new extension to the CONSORT Statement for reporting randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in both journal and conference abstracts, with its own checklist.

    Make the title informative and searchable

    The title is usually the first thing that reviewers and participants read, so it must be clear, informative and unique. Key information may include the patient group, disease name, drug or device, type of study, and – if space permits – important outcomes. Sometimes you may be able to use a colon or a dash to get the most important words at the beginning (e.g. Efficacy and safety of writacillin versus scribulomycin in adults with acute writer’s block: a double -blind randomised trial). Consider using a ‘declarative’ title stating the key conclusion (e.g. Writacillin is more effective than scribulomycin in increasing word output in medical writers with acute writer’s block). Remember that words in the title are often used to compile the index to the abstract book, and as search terms on the conference website or in online databases.

    Keep the background section short

    The conference participants are presumably all interested in the overall topic area, so the background needs to be targeted to their likely level of knowledge. Quite often, a single sentence will be sufficient.

    State the objective clearly

    A single sentence should be enough to tell the reader the research question or hypothesis. You may be able to include some of the methods in this sentence (e.g. A randomised, double-blind, placebo-controlled study was conducted to determine...). You do not then need to repeat this information in the methods section.

    Unless the study developed or evaluated a new method, keep the methods section brief...

    Unless the whole point of the presentation or poster is to describe a new method, or to evaluate an existing method, keep the methods to the minimum necessary to understand the results. However, if you only have preliminary data to report, you may need to expand the methods to fill the space!

    You can usually leave out the statistical methods, unless the main focus is on statistics

    Standard statistical methods can often be omitted from an abstract. For example, if hazard ratios or mean differences are presented, it is not necessary to explain that proportional hazards models or linear regression were used. If unusual or modified statistical methods were used, it may be appropriate to mention them briefly.

    Present the results clearly, precisely and accurately

    The results are the most important part of the abstract, so it is important that you state them clearly. Avoid long and confusing sentences, and follow a logical order. For example, in a clinical study, you could start with describing the study participants by giving actual numbers for baseline demographic and clinical data, then give the results for the primary outcome measure followed by the secondary outcome measures (if you have space). Be precise – one of the most common failings of abstracts is lack of numerical data.

    Focus on results that relate to the study objective

    In clinical trials, for scientific credibility, the primary outcome must be reported and distinguished from secondary outcomes and post-hoc analyses. There is no need to report all the secondary outcomes if some are more important than others. However, you should not attempt to mislead readers by focusing exclusively on positive findings. In particular, you should not ignore any important adverse events.

    There is rarely any need for a discussion, but present a clear conclusion

    You can proceed directly from the results to the conclusion. You may be able to increase the chance of acceptance by submitting an abstract that makes it clear why the findings are clinically relevant or original. However, do not overstate the case – very few studies revolutionise clinical practice and over-enthusiastic abstracts may irritate the selection committee.

    Finally, edit your abstract thoroughly to make it fit...

    When you have included all of the above elements, you will almost certainly find that your abstract is too long. Usually all that is required is a thorough edit to eliminate waste words. Look first at your background section – it is often possible to simply delete the entire first sentence. After that, edit the remainder of the abstract according to the rules of clear, concise writing to reduce the number of words without losing the meaning.

  • Use short sentences.
  • Use short, simple words.
  • Avoid unnecessary technical jargon.
  • Be very specific in your choice of words.
  • Use the active voice wherever possible (‘Aspirin reduced inflammation’ rather than ‘...inflammation was reduced by aspirin’).
  • Do not be afraid to use 'we measured' rather than ‘measurements were performed.

    About the authors:

    Jane Fraser, Louise Fuller and Georgina Hutber all work with Jane Fraser Associates Ltd which provides training in scientific writing and editing skills to medical communications agencies, pharmaceutical companies and universities worldwide. (E: jane@janefraser.com)

    Feedback: Do you have any comments about this article? Contact the Publisher, Peter Llewellyn.


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