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Reviewers Provide Tips for Writing Meeting Abstracts

Posted By Connections Editor, Friday, March 25, 2016

Reviewers Provide Tips for Writing Meeting Abstracts

Ayako Nakamura-Ishizu, Heather O’Leary, Cedric Tremblay and Stephen Sykes

The madness of March is coming to a close and we are now 5 months away from the 45th annual International Society of Experimental Hematology (ISEH) meeting in San Diego, USA and the deadline for submitting abstracts is quickly approaching (April 9th, 2016). In an effort to help those of you who are preparing abstracts for this year’s meeting, we contacted a panel of investigators who have previously reviewed abstracts for ISEH as well as other entities such as the American Society of Hematology (ASH) or the European Hematology Association (EHA) and asked them what attributes make for a compelling abstract as well as those that can sink it.

‘As a reviewer, are there certain aspects or attributes that stand out for you in an abstract?’


Novelty & Significance

Novelty and significance are two aspects that were highlighted by several reviewers. For example, Dr. Ann Mullally from the Department of Medicine at Brigham & Women’s Hospital (Boston, USA) says: “I think the same metrics as for grant applications apply: Significance, innovation, novelty.” Mick Milsom of the HI-STEM Institute and German Cancer Research Center (Heidelberg, DE) also said: “As a reviewer, I’m trying to select work that I think will translate into a presentation that will engage and interest the conference attendees. In that context, novelty is clearly something that figures very highly on my list of desirable attributes.”


Andrew Elefanty of the Blood Cell Development and Disease program at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute (Melbourne, AU) said that novelty and significance have the potential to separate your abstract from others: “For an oral presentation, I am looking for a story with a clear aim and outcome with sufficient supporting data. Often novelty in the approach becomes a distinguishing criterion, or new information related to a topic in which it has been difficult to make progress.” 


Dr. Margaret Goodell, Director of the Stem Cells and Regenerative Medicine Center at the Baylor College of Medicine (Houston, USA) comments: “There are no specific attributes, but we all want to learn something new that we did not know before. So think about what is novel, and make it clear to the reader.” Another expert emphasizes: “It is very important to highlight the novelty of your findings, while putting them in the context of what is already known.”


Dr. Karen Keeshan of the Institute of Cancer Sciences at the University of Glasgow (Glasgow, UK) suggests that you emphasize the novelty of your abstract: “It is nice to read abstracts that clearly state the current ‘state of the art’ in the field and how the results advance current knowledge, improve an aspect of the state of the art.” When Dr. Hal Broxmeyer of the Program on Hematopoiesis, Malignant Hematology, and Immunology at the Indiana University Simon Cancer Center (Indianapolis, USA) reviews an abstract he is looking for answers to the following questions: “Are the studies Meaningful? Relevant? Significant?”


Dr. Goodell says: “I see abstracts as an advertisement for the work – it is something that will bring people to your poster and possibly get the reviewers to want to see more, in inviting you for a talk.”


Dr. Connie J. Eaves of the Terry Fox Laboratory and BC Cancer Agency (Vancouver, CA) echoes this notion saying: “In my view, the most compelling and exciting abstracts are ones that articulate an important problem or question in the field followed by the description of a strategy used to address it and some exciting results that take the field one step further or require current dogmas to be revised.”


Another reviewer underscores the importance of explaining your message: “Explain the unmet need or question your study answers and why we should be excited.” Dr. Steven Lane of the QIMR Berghofer Medical Research Institute at the University of Queensland (Brisbane, AU) provides a helpful suggestion for strengthening the significance of your abstract: “Abstracts are rarely long enough to provide detailed data or statistics. However, if you can identify 2-3 key pieces of data and provide basic results including error, n and replicates, the reviewers will have confidence in your results and your scientific rigor.”

Make a Good First Impression

Dr. Claudia Scholl of the NCT Clinical and Translational Research Groups, German Cancer Research Center (Heidelberg, DE) recommends to bring the novelty and significance of your abstract to light in the title: “The title is very important, since people decide whether or not to read the abstract based on the title. It should be as short as possible and convey the key findings.” Dr. Mullally confirms this point saying: “The main thing I look at is the title. I am primarily interested if the topic is interesting and, in particular, if it is novel.” Dr. Scholl also suggests that you close your abstract the same way it begins: “The last one to two sentences should summarize the key message and the significance.”

Provide a Clear and Concise Structure

When asked if there are specific aspects or attributes of an abstract that they are looking for, many of the reviewers gave emphasis to abstract structure. As an example, one reviewer replied: “Structured and clearly written abstract. Briefly address the state of the art, then preliminary work (if applicable), hypothesis (define the specific question that you want to answer) and findings (including specific information on how the experiments were done).”


Dr. Lane is also looking for clear structure: “I think the composition of the abstract is more relevant than any one specific attribute. It's important to identify the problem and provide a clear, but succinct scientific rationale for pursuing this work.” In agreement, Dr. Stefan Fröhling of the NCT Clinical and Translational Research Groups, German Cancer Research Center (Heidelberg, DE) states: “Provide clear structure: specific research question, experimental approach, results, conclusions. Sufficient detail in the Results section combined with an interesting and timely research question and then using innovative and creative experimental approaches are all keys.”


Dr. Keeshan provides a helpful suggestion for abstract structure: “I highly recommend stating what systems (patient samples, mouse primary cells etc.) were used for the findings presented. I prefer to read this as part of the abstract rather than a separate methods section. This way, the description of method/tools is used to sell the results.” Dr. Milsom also suggests: “Try to come up with a clear narrative that runs through your abstract and then be clinical about deciding which data adds to the narrative, and therefore should be included, and which data is irrelevant and should be rejected.”
To ensure your abstract is clear and understandable, Dr. Goodell provides another helpful suggestion: “Clear writing will set your abstract apart. As a trainee, have graduate students from other labs, not working in the field, read the abstract. Ask them: Is it clear why this is important? Is it clear what we have accomplished?”

‘Are there red flags/things that bother you as a reviewer (i.e. pet-peeves)?’

Avoid Being Vague

Many of the responses that we received to this question revolved around abstracts being too vague. Dr. Milsom said: “I’m always a bit concerned when abstracts propose an interesting idea, but are extremely vague about describing their experimental work. I’d always be quite reluctant to award such an abstract an oral presentation slot as I would be worried that they might not actually have much substance to speak about.” Another reviewer expressed concerns with the: “lack of specific information such as properly introducing mouse models; specific information on cell populations investigated such as which population was used for next-generation sequencing (NGS) or global gene-expression profiling (GEP)”. Dr. Eaves also commented on vagueness being a negative: “failure to articulate the question being addressed or its significance and/or an absence of results because experiments have not yet been done or completed.” Dr. Elefanty explains his frustration with a lack of details: “Insufficient data do not enable me to judge the quality and/or the significance of the work.”


Drs. Keeshan and Fröhling both advised to clearly state the results of large experiments such as screens. Dr. Keeshan specifically said: “Expression analyses or big screens that concludes “a difference” but don’t actually state what the difference is or its importance is very disappointing.” Dr. Fröhling’s example was: “Vague description of results: we performed a screen and looked for this and that and will tell you at the meeting what we found.” In line with this, Dr. Lane said: “I also dislike a generic "additional data will be presented" statement. If you have the data, present it.”


Dr. Julie-Aurore Losman of Medical Oncology at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (Boston, US) also warns not to spare on details about controls: “Frequently, in the interest of space, controls that were done to establish the specificity and robustness of the findings are left out. I think this is a bad idea. Including a description of the controls (especially negative controls) can really elevate the level of the abstract.”

The Happy Medium
Although you want to avoid being too vague, Dr. Goodell points out that you can also provide too much detail: “as scientists, we want details and hard core results. So, there is really a “Goldilocks” place where you don’t want so much detail that reviewers get lost, but you want enough for reviewers to believe that you have good and exciting data.” This idea was also conveyed by another reviewer who recommends: “Write enough detail to make your abstract believable and relevant but not too much to bore the reader.”


In fact, several reviewers commented that over-detailing is a big pet-peeve. Dr. Mullally said: “The thing that bother me most is an overly detailed abstract, where you struggle to determine what is the central question the abstract addresses.” Another reviewer also said: “Too much background is another pet peeve if its not relevant enough.” To avoid over-detailing Dr. Milsom recommends: “to focus on your key experimental findings and make sure you convey their meaning in a clear manner than to try and show off the body of work that you have performed by including a (poor) description of every experiment you have ever done.”


Another subtlety that can annoy reviewers is abstracts that violate limits. Dr. Keisuke Ito of the Department of Cell Biology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine (Bronx, USA) says: “We sometimes see abstracts that are too long, but its length or format must conform to the guidelines.” Dr. Elefanty echoed this response saying: “Abstract word counts vary - stick within the limits!”

Let the Results Tell the Story
Another no-no that should be avoided is over-interpreting the results of the studies. Dr. Losman laments her experiences with over-interpretation: “I see far too many correlative studies that beautifully demonstrate a particular finding and then the authors make huge assumptions about the mechanistic basis for the correlation without having done any real biochemical or functional studies.” Dr. Ito also commented: “In some abstracts, it is unclear how the conclusions are supported by the findings described. It should be clarified well.” Dr. Broxmeyer is also bothered by over-interpretation and insufficient data: “Weak data; not enough replicates, misinterpretation of the results, extending conclusions beyond what the data shows.” He also adds: “Just be clear and keep the conclusions and interpretations consistent with the data obtained.”


Dr. Eaves also warns not to get too over-enthusiastic about certain data: “Usually, trainees who are excited about their findings will convey that excitement but over-interpreting findings should also be avoided. The possibility that the methods used and/or the data obtained do not eliminate other interpretations or conclusions is also a frequently overlooked negative.”

Watch Your Spelling and Language
Before submitting your abstract, we recommend that you have multiple colleagues review it for grammatical errors. Dr. Eaves says: “Poor English is a negative” and Dr. Mullally adds: “Obviously, spelling errors, poor grammar, tiny figures etc. are all very annoying red flags.”


Both Drs. Fröhling and Scholl are not impressed with bombastic language using words such as: ‘striking’, ‘tremendous’, ‘interestingly’ or phrases such as ‘we discovered for the first time’. Dr. Elefanty also recommends avoiding: “Abbreviations or jargon that render the work difficult to understand for the non expert.”

So as you are preparing/finalizing your abstracts for submission, we recommend that you consider the following factors:
1. Establish a clear and concise narrative that appropriately conveys the novelty and significance of your results.
2. Make sure the title reflects the importance of your studies.
3. A great abstract is structured: Significance (i.e. what is the outstanding question), Methods, Results and Concluding remarks that sum up the results.
4. Deliver sufficient detail/results (including controls, replicates and possibly statistics) without being excessive.
5. Do not over-interpret or embellish results.
6. Be sure to have other people review your abstract for both grammatical errors and clarity.

Hopefully, this article will be of help to those of you who are planning to submit an abstract to the upcoming ISEH meeting (submission deadline, April 9th). Good Luck!

We thank all of our interviewees for their input and help.

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