How to write an abstract that will be accepted
Authors: Mary Higgins, Maeve Eogan, Keelin O’Donoghue, Noirin Russell
Publication date: 16 May 2013
Researchers do not always appreciate the importance of producing a good abstract or understand the best way of writing one. Mary Higgins and colleagues share some of the lessons they have learnt as both researchers and reviewers of abstracts
Effective abstracts reflect the time, work, and importance of the scientific research performed in the course of a study. A last minute approach and poor writing may not reflect the good quality of a study.
Between the four of us we have written over 150 published papers, as well as having reviewed numerous abstracts for national and international meetings. Nevertheless, we have all had abstracts rejected, and this experience has emphasised a number of teaching points that could help maximise the impact of abstracts and success on the world, or other, stage.
An abstract is the first glimpse an audience has of a study, and it is the ticket to having research accepted for presentation to a wider audience. For a study to receive the respect it deserves, the abstract should be as well written as possible. In practice, this means taking time to write the abstract, keeping it simple, reading the submission guidelines, checking the text, and showing the abstract to colleagues.
It is important to take the necessary time to write the abstract. Several months or years have been spent on this groundbreaking research, so take the time to show this. Five minutes before the call for abstracts closes is not the time to start putting it together.
Keep it simple, and think about the message that needs to be communicated. Some abstracts churn out lots of unrelated results and then have a conclusion that does not relate to the results, and this is just confusing. Plan what points need to be made, and then think about them a little more.
Read the submission guidelines and keep to the instructions provided in the call for abstracts. Don’t submit an unstructured abstract if the guidance has asked for a structured one. Comply with the word or letter count, and do not go over this.
An abstract comprises five parts of equal importance: the title, introduction and aims, methods, results, and conclusion. Allow enough time to write each part well.
The title should go straight to the point of the study. Make the study sound interesting so that it catches people’s attention. The introduction should include a brief background to the research and describe its aims. For every aim presented there needs to be a corresponding result in the results section. There is no need to go into detail in terms of the background to the study, as those who are reviewing the abstract will have some knowledge of the subject. The methods section can be kept simple—it is acceptable to write “retrospective case-control study” or “randomised controlled trial.”
The results section should be concrete and related to the aims. It is distracting and irritating to read results that have no apparent relation to the professed aims of the study. If something is important, highlight it or put it in italics to make it stand out. Include the number of participants, and ensure recognition is given if 10 000 charts have been reviewed. Equally, a percentage without a baseline number is not meaningful.
In the conclusion, state succinctly what can be drawn from the results, but don’t oversell this. Words like “possibly” and “may” can be useful in this part of the abstract but show that some thought has been put into what the results may mean. This is what divides the good from the not so good. Many people are capable of doing research, but the logical formation of a hypothesis and the argument of its proof are what make a real researcher.
Once you have written the abstract, check the spelling and grammar. Poor spelling or grammar can give the impression that the research is also poor. Show the abstract to the supervisor or principal investigator of the study, as this person’s name will go on the abstract as well. Then show the abstract to someone who knows nothing about the particular area of research but who knows something about the subject. Someone detached from the study might point out the one thing that needs to be said but that has been forgotten.
Then let it go; abstracts are not life and death scenarios. Sometimes an abstract will not be accepted no matter how wonderful it is. Perhaps there is a theme to the meeting, into which the research does not fit. Reviewers may also be looking for particular things. For one conference, we limited the number of case reports so that only about 10% were accepted. It may be that your research is in a popular or topical area and not all abstracts in that area can be chosen. On occasions, politics play a part, and individual researchers have little control over that.
Finally, remember that sometimes even the best reviewer may not appreciate the subtleties of your research and another audience may be more appreciative.
Competing interests: We have read and understood the BMJ Group policy on declaration of interests and have no relevant interests to declare.
Mary Higgins fellow in maternal fetal medicine
Mount Sinai Hospital, Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Maeve Eogan consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Rotunda Hospital Dublin, Ireland
Keelin O’Donoghue consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, and senior lecturer Cork University Maternity Hospital, Ireland
Noirin Russell consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist Cork University Maternity Hospital, Ireland