confessions of a crabby conference abstract reviewer

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.


Conference Alphabet: Y is for You Really Shouldn’t

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.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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6 Responses to confessions of a crabby conference abstract reviewer

  1. Craig Henderson says:

    “Cite me to get accepted” is a terrible position for a reviewer. Review on the quality of work, not the size of your ego.


    • Jonathan Downie says:

      Oh citing the reviewer should never be enough on its own but there is no denying that it helps and may be more important for borderline cases. My point in the post is that usually the reviewers and especially panel chairs are selected because of their knowledge of and/or position in the field. In that case citing them can often be an indicator that you have read the literature.

      Notice that I painted at as a “neat trick” rather than a necessity. It isn’t necessary but basic psychology would suggest that it helps, if done correctly and for the right reasons. Good academics can spot pointless fawning a mile away.


  2. There are several kinds of abstracts: the conference one that is, as noted by Jonathan, written proactively and it’s the promise of things to be delivered. And then there are the retrospective ones. These present what has been done – the statement (sometimes) of an issue or challenge or position being addressed within the paper in question. That’a accompanied by a very brief precis of completed work and this includes nominating key findings or results or conclusions, pointing out highlights and/or lows and making a declaration about unfinished business. A number of years ago, I penned a two pager “A Beginners Guide to Writing an Academic Abstract” that has now had more than fifty thousand hits (see my Woodhill Park Research Retreat website under Scholarship Resources). The number of hits suggests that there really is a need for guidance about ‘abstract construction and it remains an area we tend to neglect. But lately, since I’ve been pro tem at the University of New South Wales, I’ve realised that there are two other forms of abstract: first, there are words used to describe an event such as an academic symposium, conference or workshop, and second, there are words which focus on an academic celebration such as the launch of a book or even the conferring of an honour. Strangely, we appear to pen these kinds of ‘marketing’ abstracts rather better than we do the harbingers of academic deliveries. Perhaps workshops for both academics and students about the craft of preparing a range of abstracts represent a valid form of continuing professional development.


  3. Luke James says:

    I didn’t know that it was the done thing to include specific citations in conference abstracts – what is the general view on this?


  4. Pingback: Conference Proposal Tip – Musings

  5. Pingback: Writing an abstract for mental health topics | Associate Professor Rhonda Wilson PhD RN

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