A well-written abstract is a researcher’s ticket to presenting at a conference. Each year, committees screen hundreds or thousands of those short study summaries to decide who gets one of the limited oral presentation and poster slots at their meeting.
Abstract writing is a craft in its own right: You’re asked to squeeze an entire research project into a nutshell of the size of typically 2000–3000 characters – including spaces. No wonder pharma and biotech companies hire professionals, i.e., medical writers, for this task.
However, if you’re an early-career researcher without that kind of funding, outsourcing abstract work is probably not an option. For you, I’m penning this blog post. I’ll walk you through the different parts of a medical abstract and provide pointers on writing them.
First Stop: Conference guidelines
Usually, your target conference will let you know what they want from you exactly. At a minimum, they will outline the sections you should cover and the word- or character limit for the piece. You’ll get that information on the meeting website.
If the guidelines aren’t readily available on the homepage, type the name of your target conference, the year and “abstract submission” into your search browser, and see if you get a hit.
If you still can’t find guidance on the abstract requirements, you could consider sending the conference contact a friendly email asking for advice. I can’t recommend that because not seeing the guidelines on the homepage probably means they aren’t published yet. But if you’re desperate for answers, contacting the meeting information address is a valid option.
For a clinical study, the title should describe the research rather than the outcomes. For instance:
“Post-hoc analysis of steroid dosage in adults with systemic lupus erythematosus during Drug A treatment”
is a better title than:
“Drug A decreases steroid dosage in adults with systemic lupus erythematosus”
The first title allows readers to immediately estimate the context, aim and weight of your findings, whereas the second title does not. Study and analysis parameters are crucial information to judge the impact of studies – especially in the medical field. So, it’s a good idea to put them upfront.
A good title is short and crisp. Try keeping it to less than 20 words if possible, avoid jargon or acronyms and lose any ambiguous phrases like “An investigation of” or “A study of”.
When I’m crafting a title, I usually start by writing one that contains all information I want to convey in sloppy copy and is usually 25–30 words long. Then, I edit it down until only the essential words are left. Give it a try and see if it works for you, too.
Authors and affiliations
I can’t overstate enough how important it is to confirm the author list before developing the abstract. According to any relevant guidelines, all authors have to review and approve an abstract before it is submitted to a conference. So, cement the by-line before you write your first draft.
Also, many conferences require the presenter to be the first author, so make sure your co-authors are cool with you assuming the pole position.
Under the author list, provide the institutes, cities and countries together with a comment that everybody should check their affiliations are correct during the review.
You’ll usually have to enter people’s affiliations separately in the submission system (takes forever, bring a fresh cup of tea). So, don’t worry too much about formatting at this stage.
The background or introduction section should answer the question: “Why did you start your project?” Realistically, you’ll have no more than one or two relatively short sentences to answer that. That’s not much at all.
In an abstract, you don’t need to introduce people into your field as you would in a research paper. Everybody knows you don’t have enough space for it and will forgive you for throwing them in at the deep end.
So, use your first sentence to sum up your starting point and the second one to introduce your research question.
“Phase 2 and 3 data have suggested a steroid-saving effect of Drug A in adults with systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Here, we show post-hoc analysis data on the weekly corticosteroid dose of patients with SLE during 4 years of follow-up in 2 phase 3 clinical trials.”
Occasionally, conferences have a separate section to describe the study aim. In that case, just move the second sentence from the introduction to this subheading. If you’re pressed for characters, you might actually get away with a half-sentence here, such as:
“Analyse weekly corticosteroid dose of patients with SLE during 4 years of follow-up in 2 phase 3 clinical trials (post-hoc)”
Personally, I’m not a fan of this fragmented style, but in abstracts, pretty much everything that saves you characters is worth considering.
The methods section answers the question “How did you do it?” at a rudimentary level. You’ll have to omit lots of information in the interest of space. However, your reader should get all the information they need to understand your data.
At a bare minimum, you need to define the primary endpoint and any other endpoints (secondary, exploratory) you include in your results. If you plan to show P-values, you should clarify the significance threshold, too.
Also, specify if your study was prospective or retrospective and if randomisation was involved.
In contrast, you can leave out information such as “multicentre”, inclusion and exclusion criteria and treatment regimens (you’ll mention those in the results anyway).
The results should contain your most essential findings, including hard data (e.g., medians and interquartile ranges or 95% confidence intervals, P-values, etc.). Still, this section has a clear structure.
You’ll need some patient characteristics, your endpoint outcomes, and safety results:
1) Start with a few essential parameters such as the number of patients, median age, etc.
2) Present the outcomes of your primary and any relevant secondary/exploratory endpoints.
3) Mention any relevant safety results.
You’ll probably want to include much more results than you can fit into the character limit. That’s natural – after all, you’ve probably put lots of time and effort into your study and feel strongly about your outcomes.
However, remember that the abstract is only the beginning. You’ll comfortably fit secondary findings in the oral presentation or poster. For now, hook your readers with your primary results.
Some conferences include a discussion section. Frankly, the only great use of this is including limitations. You might feel that this is unnecessary or lessen the impact of your results. However, you can only win by including this information here. Being open about the caveats of your research will show your confidence and integrity as a researcher.
The conclusions should answer the question, “So what?”. Briefly summarise what the implications of your findings are (in your opinion) without overstating their importance.
For instance: “Our findings support a steroid-saving effect of Drug A in adults with SLE who receive high-dose corticosteroids, suggesting a co-medication benefit especially in that patient populations.
Trust me, you can’t be too modest in the conclusions. Evaluators and reviewers notice overstatement in a heartbeat, and they don’t appreciate it. So, ensure that your conclusions are fully supported by your results.
There we have it: A medical abstract. I hope you found these pointers helpful. Let me know how you get on, and: Happy writing!