If you’re familiar with the world of research, you’ll recognise the word ‘abstract’ very well. However, if you’re out of that environment, it’ll probably mean nothing. Every published research article, and every piece of work submitted for presentation at a conference, will include an ‘abstract’. In the broadest sense, it is a brief summary of a piece of work on a particular subject.

As more and more conferences (particularly in healthcare) are opening their doors to patients, carers and patient organisations attending and presenting at conferences, the need for these individuals to be able submit good quality abstracts also increases. Here, you will be able to find some guiding principles to help you prepare and submit an abstract.

If you don’t want to read on, check out my ‘tips and tricks’ guide to writing an abstract, by clicking the button below!

General principles, including dates to submit

  • Language: Abstracts for large international conferences tend to be submitted in English, so unless stated otherwise, you will need to account for inclusion of local teams, perhaps in local languages, before translating into English.
  • Submission website: Abstracts tend to be submitted through an online system, hosted the website of the conference you are attending.
  • Submission dates: Find out as soon as possible when abstract submissions open, and when they close. Try to plan ahead, so that you can prepare and submit your abstract well in advance of the deadline.
  • Notification of acceptance: You tend be notified as to whether your abstract has been accepted or not by email, and this is usually a month or longer after the submission deadline.
  • Published abstracts: If your abstract is accepted for certain conferences, they may also publish them in a supplement of an academic research journal. Otherwise, they may be published in a special conference abstract book. Either way, it is a great opportunity for building a research portfolio of your work, or your organisation’s work.

The submission process

To submit an abstract, you will need to create a user account, available via the conference website, usually once abstract submissions open. For most systems, abstracts can be saved in ‘Draft status’ to be re-edited and modified up until the submission deadline. The person who submits the abstract will usually have to provide information about ethics and any potential conflicting interests (for example, links to the pharmaceutical industry).

Before submission, you should ensure that you and all the other people authoring the abstract have had the opportunity to review and re-draft it.

Once you are happy with the abstract, it can be submitted. By submitting an abstract, you are committing to attend the conference to present your abstract (if accepted) as an oral presentation or a poster.

Selecting a topic for your work

Most conference organisers provide you with a list of topics to which your work best falls under. You will need to select one. Examples of popular topics which may be relevant to patient and parent organisations in the world of rheumatology may include:

  1. Disease outcome and transition;
  2. Psycho-social aspects and rehabilitation;
  3. Electronic health and digital health applications;
  4. Pain, fatigue, disease experience and quality of life.

Abstract length and structure

The total length of your abstract must not exceed a certain number of characters or words, which varies depending on the conference organiser. For example, for the Paediatric Rheumatology European Congress, it is 4000 characters including spaces. This equates to approximately 600 words, and no more than 90 lines. The total length of the abstract tends to include: the title, author details, the main body of the abstract, and a table if included.

The abstract should be structured with the following subtitles:

  • Introduction
  • Objectives (sometimes included within the introduction section, depending on the instructions from the conference organisers)
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Conclusion

Abstract preparation

You should first identify the authors of the abstract. To qualify as an author, you should have been involved in the planning/design, conduct and/or evaluation of any project or initiative. All author names should be included in the order they will appear on the poster or presentation (if accepted). The name of the author who will present should be first.

Each author will need to provide an ‘affiliation’. This simply means to an organisation or initiative you are part of. If you are a patient or parent organisation representatives, this will be your organisation name, and location (city and country).

It will be easier to prepare your abstract in a word document, which can be easily edited and shared with all of the authors. To limit the amount of administration time, you may find it useful to create a shared word document in a cloud storage platform (e.g. Google Drive using Google Docs).

Remember that your abstract is a sales tool, first to the conference organisers/abstract reviewers, and then to the people attending the conference. Therefore, you need to make it interesting, engaging and different to the ‘average’ abstract.

Use plain English where possible, explaining uncommon terms if necessary. Where possible, avoid using abbreviations in your abstract, unless completely necessary. When you need to use an abbreviation, ensure it is explained in the first instance, followed by the abbreviation in brackets. For example, ‘Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD)’.

Use the past or present tense, avoiding the future tense. If you must use the future tense, you will need to specify what you will do and when.

If you need to provide references to the work of others, provide one or two maximum. These should be shown at the end of the abstract under the ‘References’ header. A specific style for listing references, chosen by the conference organisers, must be used. One example is the Vancouver Style, an example of which is shown here:

European Network for Children with Arthritis and Autoinflammatory Diseases. What is JDM? Available from: https://www.enca.org/paediatric-rheumatic-disease/juvenile-dermatomyositis-jdm.html [Accessed 26th January 2020].

The way to link the reference to the body of the text is using a number system. For example:

A new webpage about juvenile dermatomyositis was published by the European Network for Children with Arthritis and Autoinflammatory Diseases [1].

1. European Network for Children with Arthritis and Autoinflammatory Diseases. What is JDM? Available from: https://www.enca.org/paediatric-rheumatic-disease/juvenile-dermatomyositis-jdm.html [Accessed 26th January 2020].

Abstract content

Use a clear and simple title for your abstract which explains what your abstract is about. You may find this easier to do once you have finished writing the rest of the abstract.

The introduction section provides the big picture and the problem you’re try to address (e.g. This is the way the world works, and this is what is wrong with the world). This section should be kept to a few sentences maximum, to ensure you leave sufficient space to discuss the results and conclusions, which are the most important aspect of your abstract.

The objective should state what you intended to do with your project. Try to keep this to one sentence.

The methods section should explain the process you went through to complete your project. Again, keep this to a few sentences.

The results section should show the things you found out in your project. This section should be summarised and presented in sufficient detail to support the conclusions you will make. This should be the largest section of your abstract.

The conclusion section should provide the key take home message(s), and implications for people and/or practice.

Remember that your abstract is your sales tool. If accepted as a poster or oral presentation, you can go into much more detail about your project or initiative.

Abstract reviewing and notification

Your abstract will be reviewed by a panel of international experts in the area of which the conference is (for example, child health). Each abstract will be scored/marked on a variety of different criteria, including the quality of the project/initiative described in the abstract, whether the project/initiative is original, and whether instructions have been adhered to during preparation.

The person who has submitted the abstract will be notified if their abstract has been accepted at a time point after submission, which could be anywhere between one and four months after submission, depending on the timeline. The date, time and type of presentation (either oral or poster) will be confirmed. It is then the responsibility of the person who submitted the abstract to notify others who co-authored the abstract, and then lead the preparation of the oral or poster presentation.

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