Jonathan Downie is a conference interpreter, researcher and writer based in Edinburgh, Scotland. His PhD was at Heriot-Watt University and examined stakeholder expectations of interpreters. He recently passed his viva. He tweets as @jonathanddownie.
Dear Person Who Wrote This Abstract,
I know how hard academic life can be, I really do. I also know that most conference abstracts are dashed off in a desperate hurry about an hour before deadline (or an hour after, depending on the generosity of the organising committee). We are all in a hurry, including me and that’s why I wanted to write you this letter.
Before I say anything else, I need to begin with a humble admission. As much as I enjoy the power trip and as much as some of us can go a little bit overboard with high-handed feedback, we reviewers are not the bosses round here. We take our orders from the Organising Committee.
For example, a little while back*, I was reviewing abstracts for a targeted panel at a big conference. Our guidelines were crystal clear, mark all the abstracts out of five, take into account scientific robustness, relevance (for the conference and the panel) and the general quality of the abstract and then file a report with recommendations.
Sounds easy, you might say. It isn’t.
Take this abstract, for instance. The title is both clever and exciting. I wish I could say the same about the text. Starting with a big claim is a neat idea but it only works if you can substantiate it within the confines of your abstract. And, no, randomly inserting references to big name scholars doesn’t count. We hurried reviewers like your references to be relevant too. Harsh, I know.
Now, here’s an abstract with a difference. You want to be original, I get it, but I am not sure that failing to read the call for proposals counts. Oddly enough, I actually wrote the panel call with a colleague so we made sure to make it super easy for people to know what we wanted (we think so, anyway). We even gave a list of questions for you to try to answer.
At my last count, you managed to link to precisely none of them. Actually, you even managed to write something that doesn’t relate to any of the themes of the panel whatsoever. Maybe you meant it for one of the other panels but we just don’t have time to figure it out and since I know some of the other panel reviewers, I am uncomfortable with the idea of tossing it over to them to straighten out. So it’s the reject pile for you, sorry.
After a well-earned cup of tea, I come across this one. I would dearly love to mark this abstract as a solid 5 out of 5 but for one tiny issue. I am not entirely sure what you mean. We all love our academic obsequiousness and flights of terminological fancy but it does help if you and I both know what you mean by your key terms. Depending on how full the panel is, I might either give you the benefit of the doubt and kick it up for the organising committee to make the call, or I might just hit the reject button. One more read through, preferably by a native speaker of the conference language, and you would have been a shoe-in.
Here, on the other hand, is a real masterpiece, and I am not just saying that because you cite my work (a neat trick to remember, if you know the reviewer or even some names the scientific committee). It’s well-written, states its claims and findings clearly, engages with theory and even manages to be fun to read. All that in under 300 words. See, it is doable!
After a few nice abstracts like that, we come back to the trickier cases and, honestly, those are the ones that take up most of my time. There’s the abstract that cites the conference and panel themes (good), only to divert back to stuff that is either only tangentially related or is entirely irrelevant, depending on how recent my last cup of tea was.
There’s the abstract that looks fascinating but makes no mention of theory or related research at all or even the context of the wider field. And then there is the one that makes some good points but manages to mis-cite all the literature it mentions. I will probably have to reject that one, since I don’t want the organising committee to get annoyed with me.
Even on my crabbiest day, I would admit that something like 25% of abstracts submitted will be fantastic, 25% will have me reaching for my reject pen and 50% will be somewhere in-between. There is no reason why 50% or even 75% of abstracts couldn’t be brilliant. In fact, I have done reviews with colleagues where we found it hard to reject any abstracts at all. And I have done others that made me despair for the state of my field.
In short, I humbly ask for three things: make my job easy by being clear and relevant, make my job fun by being interesting and thought-provoking, and stroke my ego by citing me** or someone on the scientific committee (preferably both). After all, they let me become a reviewer (and sometimes a panel chair) for a reason.
Dr Crabby Abstract Reviewer
*Actually, this is a composite of several experiences, with the precise details of abstracts changed and some common issues fused into a single case. You get the idea.
**This applies to all abstract reviewers. We all like to see our work being used.