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Writing a Successful Abstract

James F George, PhD
University of Alabama at Birmingham

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jim georgeAttending annual meetings are an important part of professional life. It is an opportunity to meet other professionals face-to-face and to present research or ideas to a critical audience. While meeting people is easy enough, getting on the program of a clinical/scientific meeting involves convincing a committee of abstract reviewers that your work is of high enough quality and sufficiently interesting to warrant giving it one of a finite number of slots available for presentation.

It is here where a number of investigators, especially junior ones, run into a roadblock without understanding what went wrong or why their abstract was rejected. Investigators don't usually hear why they failed to get on the program, which can lead to erroneous conclusions such as "they did not consider our work interesting" or "they just didn't get it". Based on my experience on abstract review committees, the latter conclusion, while usually incorrect, may be closer to the truth. The reviewers may not have understood the abstract or may have been unable to evaluate the work.

It is important to remember that the quality of any meeting is ultimately dependent on the quality of presentations in the program, and the only way that the program committee can evaluate the potential excellence is from the submitted abstract. So it is imperative that you communicate the essence of your study with clarity and credibility. This is not a trivial task. The available space for an abstract is severely limited and ruthlessly enforced by the cold-hearted scripts on the abstract submission website. So the text must be clear and succinct with the goal of conveying the essential elements of a research study.

On the ISHLT abstract submission website, these essential elements are divided into four sections: Background or introduction (hypothesis), methods, results, and conclusions. The background is typically 2-3 sentences and should contain a clear statement of the hypothesis. The methods section should not contain details other than those that are essential to understanding the design. The primary objective of the methods section is to impart the essential elements of the experimental design, including controls or comparison groups. How many experiments were performed? How many patients were included in the study? What was the mean or median follow-up? The reviewers must be given a clear indication of how the question given in the background was approached. In a clinical study, this would include a clear description of the patient groups, the number of patients, mean or median follow-up as well as other information most relevant to the experimental design.

From the viewpoint of the reviewer, the results section is the most critical, and of all sections, is the primary determinant of whether or not a given abstract will be included in a scientific program, unless the background or methods sections have been written in such a way as to obscure its meaning. For the results, the most common mistake an abstract reviewer sees is the failure to include quantitative information and statistical evaluation of comparative statements. To say "levels of protein X were increased" is not enough. The reviewer will expect a statement like "levels of protein X increased from 8.3 ± 2.1 units (n=5) in the controls to 15.1 ± 3.4 (p=0.021, paired t-test, n=8)." Let me say this again. If you make comparative quantitative statements, they must be backed up with data and statistics. This is true for basic science as well as clinical studies. For studies in which the data are largely qualitative, the abstract must still provide evidence that any comparative statements are credible. The conclusions are a summation of what the data mean, so as such, they must logically follow the presented data. There is no need to say "in summary" or "in conclusion". It is ok to simply list the conclusions and, if you like, to include a single sentence regarding their significance.

Writing a good abstract involves putting the information needed to clearly communicate a finding into a very small space. Judicious use of abbreviations (e.g. pts for patients), careful sentence construction, and inclusion of only what you need to make a point are helpful in fitting an abstract into the available space.

It is painful for an abstract reviewer to reject an abstract when he or she believes that there may be good work behind the words, but is unable to sufficiently determine the quality of the study and its conclusions. Keeping these considerations in mind will improve your chances of having your presentation included in the program.

Disclosure Statement:
The author has no conflicts of interest to disclose.