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:

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.

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.