Abstract Art: How to Write a Killer Conference Paper


By Karla Miller and Thomas Okell

Abstract season is always exciting. You’ve been labouring hard and are ready to wow the MRI world with your latest results.

Now to write your abstract! What can you do to give your masterpiece its best chances of success once you’ve sent it out into the world?  Here, we provide some hard-learned tips for preparing your abstract.

Appeal to your audience. Over 5,500 abstracts are expected to be presented in Paris. It simply isn’t possible for attendees to read every submission relevant to their research in detail. So how can you convince your colleagues – including reviewers – to devote their precious brainpower to your abstract?

  • Tell a story… Set the scene: an important open problem or outstanding question that the field needs to address. Create some action: what you have done and why it’s novel. Give them an ending: highlight the main take-away point. Hint at a sequel if appropriate…
  • …focusing on what’s important…An abstract is not a paper; it is an overview. The intention of word limits is to force you to focus. But all too often, authors squeeze out the big picture in an effort to accommodate detail. Readers will only give you their time if they understand your overall aim and are convinced it’s important. You can always provide more detail at the meeting!
  • …in pictures. Humans are visual creatures. Before reading the text of an abstract, most people will look at the figures. You will draw in a larger audience if they encapsulate your story. Showing some exemplary images or spectra will also give readers confidence in the quality of the data underlying your results. And avoid tables if you possibly can!

Make the reviewer’s job easier. Review plays a critical role in determining the session type and topic each abstract ends up in. On average, ISMRM reviewers are asked to score 56 abstracts, all submitted to the same category. Although reviewers are knowledgeable in the broad category topic, most will not be highly expert across the entire category. Moreover, in order to get through such a large number of abstracts in just a few weeks, reviewers inevitably have very limited time to spend on each abstract. What can you do to get the best possible reviews under these conditions?

  • Work to the reviewer’s time constraints. Remember that reviewers face a sizeable stack of abstracts. It’s a big job. If you can draw them in by clearly explaining why your work is exciting, they will be willing to spend more time with it. The good practices for reaching your audience hold doubly for reviewers, given the importance of reviewer scores and their heavy workload.
  • Choose your submission category carefully. We can’t stress enough how important this is, since the primary category entirely determines reviewers. Choosing the right category ensures you get the right reviewers. If several categories seem appropriate, you can take a cue as to which is the best fit from the categories it is grouped with (indicated by the numbering in hundreds).
  • First impressions count. Give the reviewer confidence in assigning you a high score. Sloppy figures and typos give the impression that the research was conducted hastily. In contrast, neat figures and clearly written text convey the message that you will put in the effort to give a good presentation.

Don’t leave it to the last minute. All of the above recommendations require thought and benefit from feedback from colleagues. It’s tempting to keep working on results to the last minute, delaying your actual writing, but this strategy rarely pays off.

  • Start drafting early (yes, now!). Even if you aren’t ready to write the final version, we highly recommend outlining the key points for each section and drafting figures well in advance. Let your co-authors know that an abstract is in the works and find out their availability and expectations for editing drafts.
  • Review the submission guidelinesISMRM abstracts may have a different format from other conferences you attend. Find out about our way of doing things. Similarly, familiarize yourself with the HTML-based formatting sooner rather than later.
  • Start the submission form early. Much of the information required can be entered long in advance. Interacting with a glacial, overloaded submission system while sleep deprived may be a ritual for some, but it is not fun.

Good luck, fellow zeugmatographers. May your p-values be small, your images compelling, and your reviewers enthusiastic!