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Nurse Education in Practice (2006) 6, 112116

Nurse
Education
in Practice
www.elsevierhealth.com/journals/nepr

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Research dissemination: The art of writing


an abstract for conferences
Jane Coad

a,*

, Patric Devitt

School of Health, 52, Pritchatts Road, The University of Birmingham, Edgbaston,


Birmingham B15 2TT, United Kingdom
b
School of Nursing, University of Salford, United Kingdom
Accepted 23 August 2005

KEYWORDS

Summary This article aims to assist readers with developing an abstract for a conference in order to have a paper accepted for presentation at a conference,
whether it is in poster or an oral format. This is important as the authors argue that
use of conferences as a method of disseminating research findings and good practice
is expanding each year. Drawing on author experiences, both as members of scientific review panels and as submitters of abstracts, the article includes a practical
review about the meaning of an abstract, how to get started and then breaks down
in clear sections what reviewers look for in a good abstract. There are also some key
points on the actual process of review, which are helpful in understanding of what
happens to an abstract following submission.
c 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

Research dissemination;
Abstract writing;
Conference
presentations;
Steering committees


Introduction

The use of conferences as a method of disseminating research findings and good practice is
expanding each year (RCN, 2004). Ordinarily, prospective presenters have to submit a short abstract of their presentation for review by the
conference scientific committee. The aim of this
article is to assist you to develop a successful abstract for a conference presentation, whether it is
in poster or an oral format. Whilst, we have drawn
* Corresponding author.
E-mail address: j.coad@bham.ac.uk.

upon some literature this article is based on our


experiences. We are both members of scientific
review panels and regularly submit abstracts for
conferences.
The first point is to consider the purpose of an
abstract. Dictionary definitions provide a useful
starting point to breaking the concept into parts.
The word abstract was reviewed in the Oxford
English Dictionary (2004), which helped to identify
key components of to purloin; forming a general
concept from consideration of particular instances
and theoretical summary. Thus, as identified by
Sheldon and Jackson (1999) it provides a succinct
overview of the paper. It is far from being a simple

1471-5953/$ - see front matter c 2005 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.
doi:10.1016/j.nepr.2005.08.003

Research dissemination: The art of writing an abstract for conferences


matter to distil the complexities of a research project, literature review or practice innovation into a
few hundred words. As Pierson (2004) states:
If you want a 10 min summary, I can have it for
you a week from today; if you want it to be 30 minutes, I can do it tomorrow; if you want a whole
hour, Im ready now. (p. 1207)
The dictionary definitions illustrate that the word
abstract does have a well-established definition
and meaning. Its purpose is also clear and is usually
stated to be twofold. Firstly, it enables the conference committee to make an informed decision
about your proposed presentation. Such decisions
will be based on the suitability of the content, academic rigor and applicability for the conference.
Secondly, if accepted, your abstract will provide
the relevant, background information needed by
conference participants. However, when considering submitting an abstract one of the biggest hurdles
is often getting started.

Getting started
Cook (2000) suggests that time taken to consider
and plan your work is always time well spent. The
first and crucial step is to ensure that you target
your paper to an appropriate conference. This
means that you should always spend some time
ensuring that the focus of your paper is adapted
to reflect the themes of the conference.
The first essential thing to do is to review the title and aims of the conference. You must make sure
that the stated objectives, guidelines and themes
of the conference are reflected in your abstract
and in some cases the title of your proposal. Whilst
conferences in exotic locations may be tempting,
you should ensure that your paper meets these elements. If the focus of a conference is education
such as the Nurse Education Tomorrow conference,
there is little chance of a paper on encouraging
breastfeeding in public being accepted (unless the
focus could be developed into an educational one).
Secondly, despite stating the obvious you need
to make sure you read the information provided
by the conference organisers. Starting with the
easiest task, which is ensuring that your abstract
will be received before the closing date. We have
both have missed closing dates, so we strongly recommend that you put a note in your diary at least a
week before the very last date of submitting your
abstract. Many conferences have a relatively short
turnaround period from receiving your abstract to
when the scientific committee meet to make their

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decision about which are the most suitable and


thus the successful papers. Late submission of abstracts is a sure-fire way to achieve rejection.
Most conferences give presenters an option of
the mode of presentation. You should decide from
the outset whether you would prefer to make an
oral presentation or to develop a poster for presentation. Spoken presentations allow greater interaction and discussion with the audience, but require
a level of confidence in public speaking. In contrast, poster presentations allow the potential
audience to study the content in depth, and it is
open to a wider audience than those attending a
particular session. Sometimes conference organisers will offer presenters a poster rather than their
requested oral presentation and vice versa.
Finally, you should give regard to the format requested for an abstract: traditionally abstracts
have been requested as hard copy, however, many
conference committees now prefer (or in some
cases only accept) submissions via e-mail. Some
also accept submission on line, e.g., The Royal
College of Nursing International Nursing Research
Conference (http://www.man.ac.uk/rcn/research
2005/cfa.htm).

First impressions
First impressions are important, poor presentation
is often taken to reflect a lack of interest or a lack
of academic rigor. In all cases you should word process your abstract. You should ensure that you use
an appropriate font size and most commonly this is
requested as font size 1012. It may sound pedantic, but papers have been rejected because the
font size is too small for the reviewer to actually
see. The use of too large a font gives the impression of trying to fill space as a result of having little
to say. It is important not to overload the reader so
try to keep your points concise and to the point.
Some conferences provide a box and/or word limit
(e.g., 250 words). This criterion must be adhered
to. We have both found from experience that there
is little point in spending hours trying to expand
these boxes. However using a true font such
as Arial or Times New Roman does allow the maximum wordage within a limited space.
Good practice indicates that your abstract should
be written in the past tense and that it should remain
constant, i.e., you should not mix tenses. A good literary style is not essential but is very helpful to the
reviewer and if the abstract is accepted, it will also
help the delegates to make their choice. If you feel
you may have a stylistic problem we recommend

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J. Coad, P. Devitt

that you ask a colleague to critically read your paper. Whilst this exposes yourself to criticism and
may cause you some disquiet it can be very helpful
in helping you to have your abstract accepted. We
recommend that you photocopy the abstract form
several times or save back up electronic copies. As
your colleague(s) provide feedback then you can
regularly update the abstract until you are happy
with its overall flow and coherence. A criticalfriend may also be useful at this stage, especially
if they do not share your professional background.
If your abstract is not clear or contains hidden
assumptions this friend is often able to identify
them. Do not be fooled into thinking that if an abstract is full of jargon littered with unnecessary
technical terms and complex language that it will
impress the reviewers. Remembering your potential
audience is important as many may not have English
as their first language and so being able to express a
complex idea simply is far preferable for every audience you are likely to attract. There are a number of
excellent guides to help you use English in a clear
and simple way one example is: Plain English Campaign (2004). Another example of language to avoid
are colloquialisms such as; placed on an observation chart and pushing fluids although conjuring
up interesting images should be avoided. Standard
abbreviations can be used but they should always
be written in full the first time they are used for
example: General Practitioner (GP); United Kingdom (UK) or Kilograms (kgs). Try to avoid abbreviations that are non-standard no matter how
commonly they are used in professional conversation for example: obs for observations. Remember
also that if you are addressing an international audience they may well be familiar with different abbreviations, or more worryingly the same abbreviations
with different meanings.
It is also essential that you check your abstract
for any spelling mistakes. It is hard to overemphasise the poor impression given by simple avoidable

Aims
Gives a general statement of the
goal to be achieved
Does not give an indication of
how the goal is to achieved.
May emphasise the value of the
goal

Figure 1

errors. This is especially true given that all word


processing packages come with spell checkers,
but you need to make sure you have not inadvertently added some mis-spellings. On the other hand
do not be lulled into a false sense of security; spell
checkers only ensure that a word is correctly spelt
not that it is the correct word. Important and impotent are both spelt correctly, but the substitution
of the latter for the former considerably changed
the meaning of one abstract we recently reviewed.
Finally in this section, it is important that you
send all the biographical information that has been
requested by the conference organisers. Usually
this information is requested on a separate sheet
from the rest of the abstract to ensure anonymous
review. When a paper or electronic form is being
completed it is easy to check whether there are
any blank spaces in the form. More difficult perhaps
is to check whether an e-mail contains all the requested information. Do double check, however,
as it is not unusual for an abstract to be rejected
because no-body knows who sent it.

Title
Aim to keep your title clear and concise. As outlined previously, you should ensure that your title
reflects the overall aims and themes of the conference. Some authors are able to think of eye-catching, punchy titles but make them so obscure that it
is not clear what the delegate should expect from
the presentation. It may also be worth checking
previous conference proceedings to see whether
the organising committee appreciates clever or
humorous titles.

Aim and outcomes


What is your presentation trying to achieve? This
needs to be made explicit; if you as the author are

Learning outcomes
Derived from the aim
Describe the desired end-state in
terms of knowledge, skills and
attitudes.
Usually take the form of a
behavioural statement i.e. at the
end of the session the participants
will be able to

Defining characteristics of aims and learning outcomes (adapted from Quinn, 2000).

Research dissemination: The art of writing an abstract for conferences


not sure it is unlikely the scientific committee or indeed your potential audience will understand. This
may be in the form of an aim, learning outcomes
or indeed both. Take note of the characteristics of
each (Fig. 1) and ensure you provide the conference
organisers with what they have requested. These
are often used by conference delegates to decide
which paper to attend so clarity is essential.

Content
In the main section you should take the opportunity
to include some of the key, background literature
to the paper. It is important that this is informative
and not over-verbose in its message. If your paper
is a literature review then this section makes up
the entirety of the abstract, otherwise a short paragraph to set the scene and gain the readers interest will suffice.
If your abstract is in relation to a research study it
is relevant to summarise the process. A few clear
sentences about each element such as sample,
methodology, data collection and analysis is all that
is usually required. However, if the focus of the conference is research, or your paper is primarily about
the process then this section needs to be increased
in both length and depth.
At the end of your abstract you should take the
opportunity to reiterate your message about what
your presentation is about in a summary of one or
two sentences. Remember, a punchy and/or
thought provoking conclusion may be useful in
focusing the readers attention.

References
It is also crucial that you submit your abstract with
a sample of references on the topic using the referencing style requested, most commonly, this being
Harvard. Some conferences limit the number of
references to be used, often to three. You should
carefully read and abide by the conference instructions. The rule is; if references are limited ensure
that you choose wisely. You should aim to include
references that are current, can be easily obtained
and are relevant to the central focus of your paper.
It is well worth the time to ensure they are correct,
as wrongly cited references give an impression of
lack of care and rigor.

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conference organisers instructions? Have you eliminated every single misspelled word, typographical
error and grammatical mistake? Finally, all the
listed authors should read and agree the final draft.
Now it is ready for submission!

What happens next?


The details of what happens to an abstract following submission vary but the general path they follow will not be dissimilar. Abstracts will be sent
out to expert reviewers who will be asked to comment on the relevance, currency, rigor and interest. Each abstract is usually read by at least two
reviewers and they will have clear, pre-determined
guidance for acceptance. A top tip here is that the
guidelines for acceptance are usually published
along with information about the conference, so
take particular attention to utilise key words or focus, as we have recommended earlier in this article. It is on these guidelines that reviewers will
recommend acceptance or rejection, following
which, recommendations are sent back to the scientific committee for consideration.
If there is a discrepancy between reviewers it is
the scientific committee that makes the final decision. They may even ask for a further reviewer to read
the abstract. Whilst it is unlikely for the scientific
committee to accept a paper that reviewers recommend for rejection it is possible that the reverse
may occur. This is because whilst the individual
reviewers concern is with the quality of the individual
submission the scientific committee is also charged
with ensuring the balance of papers throughout the
whole conference. On occasions, this may mean that
papers may be of good quality but may be rejected
because of the volume of submissions and the focus
and quality of other papers were felt to be better.
We have both noticed that the approach to
rejecting abstracts is changing. In the past a rejection was communicated in a short letter describing
the quality and number of submissions received,
more recently the letter of rejection is accompanied by the reviewers comments. Do not be put
off by the comments; they are there to help you
and whilst rejection is painful, consider the feedback as guidance for future submissions, after all
the reviewer has taken the trouble to make their
comments in the hope that they provide you with
a learning opportunity.

And, just before submission. . .


Conclusion
Before you submit your abstract, whether it be as
hard or electronic copy, invest five minutes in a final check. Have you completed it according to the

In this article, we have outlined the principles and


practice of writing an abstract for presentation at

116
conference. It is not good fortune that allows some
prospective presenters to have their abstracts accepted whilst others suffer serial rejection. If you
follow the guidelines above you are not guaranteed
to be successful with every abstract submission.
You will however increase you chances of success
considerably. We hope to meet you at a conference
and hear or see the fruits of your labours soon.

Acknowledgements
Thank you to the members of the RCN Research in
Child Health (RiCH) Group who encouraged us to
commit these ideas to paper.

J. Coad, P. Devitt

References
Cook, R., 2000. The Writers Manual. Radcliffe Medical press,
Oxford.
Oxford English Dictionary Online (2004). http://www.oed.com.
Pierson, D.J., 2004. How to write an abstract that will be
accepted for presentation at a national meeting. Respiratory
Care 49 (10), 12061212.
Plain English Campaign, 2004. <http://www.plainenglish.co.uk/
plainenglishguide.html> (accessed 20.10.2004.).
Quinn, F.M., 2000. Principles and Practice of Nurse Education.
Stanley Thornes, Cheltenham.
Royal College of Nursing (RCN), 2004. Conference unit <http://
www.man.ac.uk/rcn/research2005/cfa.htm>
(accessed
28.10.04.).
Sheldon, L., Jackson, K., 1999. Demystifying the academic aura:
preparing an abstract. Nurse Researcher 7 (1). Autumn.