How to Write a Scientific Abstract:

Preparing for Congress Submission and Review 

Iain A. Grant BVSc MRCVS DipACVIM (oncology), Vice-president European Society of Veterinary Oncology


Writing a good scientific abstract requires guidance and practice and in this review article, I will present some ideas that I hope will make your scientific abstract outstanding. 

If you are a young clinician or scholar in training, I also hope this will inspire you to choose our annual congress to present your scientific work. This is the best way to contribute to the advancement of our profession and disseminate medical knowledge.

If you are a seasoned presenter then perhaps this will be useful revision, or it may motivate you to mentor a less experienced colleague in the process of scientific writing.

Purpose:

Scientific abstracts are summaries of research work. Conference organising committees seek to draw up a program of the highest scientific interest and quality. All abstracts are therefore scrutinised by a panel of reviewers for the research they present but also for their content and style. Poor quality abstracts that lack preparation or that are not complete, concise and clear are obvious to reviewers and will generally be rejected.

Guidelines are published on our website regarding abstract submissions. Please read these guidelines carefully.  They provide vital ‘go-to’ information, including the criteria by which abstracts will be evaluated and the word limit when writing the abstract, which must be adhered to. 

A scientific abstract provides a vital first impression of you as a scientist, author and presenter. It is not the time to express your personal writing style; as you will see below, scientific writing is highly stylised and structured.

Almost certainly a good abstract, if accepted, will encourage attendance at your forthcoming conference presentation. A poorly written abstract will represent a lost opportunity for you to share the results of the research work that you spent so much time and energy gathering.

Poster versus oral format:

Acceptance to present in either oral or poster format is an achievement to be proud of and there are circumstances where a poster may actually be a superior platform. Oral presentations follow a strict time limit therefore if your work is conceptually or methodologically complex, a poster is potentially a better way to present it. As an inexperienced presenter, a poster presentation may also feel less stressful than an oral presentation until you gain in your experience and confidence. However the best reason to choose a poster format is if your research work lends itself better to it e.g.

Structure:

Most conferences request a structured abstract although there may be some minor variations between guidelines. The structured abstract is easier to read, recall and peer review.

Broadly speaking, each section poses a question.

1. Introduction: Why was this research carried out?

The Introduction puts you research into context and explains how it contributes to the current body of knowledge. Try to demonstrate your understanding of the current literature relevant to your study. Crucially, the introduction section ends by stating the aim or aims of the research.

2. Materials and Methods: How was this research carried out?

In this section you may want to state the sample size, the population from which the study group were taken, the nature of the intervention and how data was gathered and analysed. An in depth discussion of technical methodology is not required in the abstract. 

3. Results: What was discovered?

Although no one section of the abstract should carry more importance than another, a reader or conference delegate is potentially most interested in the results of your study. Present clear and concise data; include numerical values such as absolute numbers, percentages or p-values. Negative outcomes should be stated. Try to include your final data set in the abstract submission.

4. Discussion: What does the data mean?

This may include the implications for clinical practice or how your study has altered the understanding of the pathophysiology, diagnosis or treatment of disease. You may want to state how your study could guide future research work.

The discussion section should explain the importance of the study’s findings and provide some interpretation. Conclusions should be stated based on the data presented in the results section. No new data should be introduced in the discussion.

After completion of the abstract it is important to review, edit and correct it a number of times. If you are not a native English speaker, then ensure it is read by someone who can correct for grammatical and spelling errors or errors in English constructions. Remove unnecessary words and ensure that sentences are short, simple and purposeful. Peer review by a colleague, especially someone experienced in scientific writing or abstract preparation can improve your work before final submission.

Choosing a title: 

The choice of title is very important. It not only conveys the content of the abstract, it is the first opportunity to attract the reader’s attention to the importance or findings of your work. It should be 10-12 words in length, and may be informative (outlining the nature of the study) or may be descriptive (giving an insight into the results of the study). Do not overlook the value of a good choice of title. 

The abstract review process – in summary

In brief, abstracts will be assigned to a number of different sub-categories for the purpose of review: pure clinical, basic science, radiation oncology/imaging, surgery and pathology. Submissions from residents and PhD students will be accepted in all categories. A panel of 3 reviewers will be assigned to each category, and the abstracts will be scored using an online scoring system.

The process of review will be equally rigorous for both oral and poster presentation formats and failure to be accepted for an oral presentation does not automatically mean acceptance for the scientific program in poster format. 

The following criteria will be evaluated, although not all assessment criteria carry the same importance. Points will be assigned for each criterion.

Based on the score, a rank order will be drawn up with the highest scored abstracts at the top. Individual reviewer’s scores will be compared amongst the 3 reviewers in each of the panels and the final decision on whether the abstract is accepted or rejected will be made based on a consensus amongst the group. The reviewers’ decision will be final and no correspondence in any format will be able to be entered into between the researcher and the review panel.

Other reasons that an abstract may be rejected include inappropriate study design or lack of originality.  If information has been presented previously or already published or the outcomes of the study present no new data that contributes materially to the current body of veterinary oncology knowledge, an abstract is likely to be rejected. In a very small number of cases, rejection may be based on ethical considerations. This may include such concerns as inadequate short or long term monitoring of side effects of a newly proposed therapy. Single case reports in either oral or poster format will generally not be accepted.

Like any creative endeavor, writing a scientific abstract requires practice and some individuals may be better at this process than others; however reading around the subject and following some of the recommendations made in this review will hopefully assist you in producing a successful abstract to be proud of.

‘Writing for Publication in Veterinary Medicine’ is a free online resource provided by Wiley Blackwell. I thoroughly recommend this as a valuable addition to your scientific library.