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Writing Abstracts for Scientific Conferences

Release Date: July 3, 2014
Category: Scientific Writing
Author: Sonia M., Ph.D., E.L.S.

Writing an abstract for a scientific conference is different from writing an abstract for a manuscript or review article. For a conference, the abstract is typically the only written description of your research that will be available to your audience, and most conferences impose a strict word limit for abstracts, forcing you to effectively communicate your research in a very limited amount of space.

Know Your Target Audience

Almost all conferences will expect you to attend the meeting and present a poster or an oral presentation when you submit an abstract. Many conferences have unlimited space for poster presentations; however, some highly attended meetings only accept a limited number of abstracts for either poster or oral presentations. For these highly competitive conferences, the opportunity to publish and present your research at the meeting completely depends on the ability of your abstract to convey the quality and impact of your research.

Before you start writing your abstract, you should always check the conference instructions for the required abstract format. This will allow you to identify the word limit and any specific formatting requirements (e.g., structured headings versus an unstructured abstract). These requirements will be important to keep in mind when you begin writing the abstract so that your abstract fits within the specified conference requirements. You may also find it helpful to read some abstracts from previous years’ meetings as examples.

What to Include: Background

Your abstract should begin with a brief introduction of the overall problem you are trying to address with your research and any information the reader may need to understand the importance and rationale for your research. The level of detail that you need to include in the background of your abstract will depend upon the conference audience. For conferences at which all attendees will be experts in your field, you will not need to include as many background details as for conferences with more general audiences where the attendees may be less familiar with your particular research topic and field.

What to Include: Methods

Your Methods section should describe the experimental approach used to test your hypothesis/hypotheses. The level of detail that you provide will depend, in large part, on the word limit allowed for the abstract. In general, as with an abstract for a manuscript, you should provide a brief overview to provide the reader with your general experimental approach (e.g., did you use microarray assays, were your experiments conducted using a specific animal model or in cell culture, etc.). The abstract does not need to provide every detail of your experiments—many of these details will instead be included in your poster or oral presentation, particularly when you have a limited word count.

What to Include: Results

Your abstract should only include the results from experiments you have conducted—not what you hypothesize will happen in future experiments you plan to conduct (although you can mention future experiments in the Conclusion/Discussion of your abstract). You should provide a brief overview of the results you have obtained or the general trends you have observed from your results. Describe the most important and highest impact results you have in more detail than you do for less important results.

What to Include: Conclusions/Discussion

Your abstract should conclude with a conclusion and/or discussion that describes how your results fit within the general research topic you described in the background/introduction. Keep your conference audience in mind when writing the discussion. If you are attending a conference where the attendees may not be experts within your field, describe the importance of your results in more general terms that can be understood in a broad sense; however, if the conference audience will be experts in your field, you can describe your results in more technical terms.

You may also include future directions or planned experiments at the end of your abstract. These can provide information about how your results fit into your area of research, and they also provide a link to any updated results you may include in your poster or oral presentation at the conference.

Additional Points to Consider for Conferences

In contrast to an abstract for a manuscript or other article, you will often write the abstract for the conference several weeks to months before you present your results. This can make it difficult to determine exactly what to include, as you may have experiments in progress for which you do not have results at the time you submit your abstract. Some conferences will allow minor last-minute updates to your abstract prior to the conference, providing an opportunity for you to update your results and conclusions, if necessary. If you cannot update your abstract, it is often acceptable to include the updated results in your poster or oral presentation. These additional results may even tie-in to future directions that you discussed in your abstract, as mentioned above.

When writing your abstract, keep in mind that this will typically be the only information that conference attendees have about your research. Because attendees will use your abstract to determine whether they are interested in visiting your poster or attending your talk, make sure that your abstract is easy to understand and highlights the importance of your findings in a way that will be interesting for conference attendees. This can be difficult when trying to work within a small word limit, so focus on the most important results and conclusions that you are trying to convey.

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