Flip the Abstract Model at Scientific Conferences

Author: Dave Lutz, CMP       

Many health-care and STEM conference business models are heavily dependent on participants who are able to justify their attendance in part because their oral or poster abstract has been accepted. We’ve analyzed some conferences in which the majority — as high as 80 percent — of attendees is on the scientific program. We refer to these conferences as meetings of speakers speaking to speakers.

If your conference has the “speakers speaking to speakers” model, the primary avenue for growth has been to make room for more speaking slots or add to the poster-board footprint. But increases of this kind usually only result in further diluting the quality of the conference experience.

A Different Approach

In his research article, “Peer Review: The Current Landscape and Future Trends,” Michael Jubb writes that there are “growing opportunities for researchers to publish non-peer-reviewed articles for review in an open environment.”

Many scientific journal articles cover details on research that has been completed. Conversely, most conference abstracts cover work that is in progress.

If we apply these principles to the scientific meeting session design, these work-in-progress research projects should be more than just presented, they should be reviewed and improved in our conference settings — or to use Jubb’s term, in “open” environments.

To accomplish this, scientific meeting organizers will need to shift from expert-centered, rapid-fire, low-engagement oral abstracts to conversation sessions during which peers help shape the research project’s next steps. To accomplish this, abstracts should be available in advance so peers can come prepared to critique, much like the flipped-classroom model, in which students prepare on their own for classroom interaction.

Peer Review Is Too Nice

This flipped concept to create peer critique sessions isn’t new — it really goes back to the roots of scientific meetings. We’ve lost sight of improving research through collaboration at our conferences as we’ve accepted more abstracts and made decisions to give students a chance to present. Not too many years ago, researchers would openly challenge findings. Today, we’re more worried about hurting feelings than improving discovery.

For your next conference, introduce a new session format designed so that research projects are improved upon, not just presented. Use a session-format term like “peer critiques” to help describe the session design and to set the expectation for constructive criticism. Make the abstracts available in advance via video, digital poster, or in written form. Encourage the attendees to come to the session with honest opinions and advice. Abstract submitters should check their egos at the door so that they are in a frame of mind to welcome and consider all feedback.

Dave Lutz, CMP, is managing director of Velvet Chainsaw Consulting.

CV Worthy

If your conference is like most, 80 percent or more of all abstract submissions are accepted as either an oral or poster presentation. When a researcher is one of hundreds — or thousands — who have a slot on the program, does it mean anything in terms of his or her resume?

To improve CV worthiness, work with your conference-planning committee to find ways of recognizing the best science — the top 10 percent of abstracts — at your conference. Develop a rubric for peer reviewers to use that assesses such qualities as originality, significance, and scientific rigor.

Read “Are Conference Publications as Valuable as Journal Publications?” on the Enago Academy Career Corner site.