The art of the ambiguous conference poster abstract

May 09 2012 Published by under Uncategorized

As many of you are well aware, abstracts for the Society for Neuroscience Annual Meeting in October are due in just over 24 hours. Have you written yours yet? Me neither. Have you done the experiments whose exciting and paradigm-shifting results you intend to describe in this abstract? Oh yes, me too....sort of.

With a five-month lag time between abstract submission and actual face-to-face science talking, it's not at all uncommon for a neuroscientist to find herself at a crossroads come mid-May. Unless you've gotten a solid chunk of sexy data over spring semester (because let's face it--the months between the end of SfN last November through mid January of this year were pretty much a wash), there may be a...loose end or two that needs to be tied up over the summer before you have a poster's worth of data. And tie you shall! Come October you will have a beautiful, compelling story that will have conference-goers surrounding you 4-deep through the entirety of your poster session--even on Wednesday!

But what do you do now, with a deadline looming, and just a smattering of raw data (or worse, merely the outline of an experimental design) to work with? I imagine there are some PIs out there who only let their labs submit abstracts once they've got those shiny <0.05 p values in hand, and that is a completely legitimate, if conservative, way of doing things. On the other hand, you can submit an abstract that I like to think of as a teaser--one that hints at the work that will be presented, whetting the attendees' appetites, but without giving too much away.

I am quite a proponent of the latter approach, and I'll tell you why: very few people read the abstracts. Moreover, those who read them won't remember them. Here is a little story to illustrate that point:

During my penultimate year of grad school, I had a rough patch where I collected basically no data. Nothing worked, not even in a negative way. I was just getting ramped up to start a new direction, when SfN abstract time rolled around. I took a risk and wrote a vague abstract with an even vaguer title that loosely touched on new direction experiments, and crossed my fingers that the new thing would work. Guess what? It didn't! However, I had a completely different thing pan out at the last minute, and  I presented that instead (luckily, vague title was so vague that new data still sort of fit under its umbrella). I had the best poster traffic I've probably ever had in my entire career, and not one single person said, Hey, I thought this poster was supposed to be about X, but this seems to be about Q, WTF BAIT & SWITCH! Did not happen.

But this is not just about not getting "caught." As a scientist, the best thing you can do for yourself is to get people to come listen to you talk about your research, full stop. And at a gigantic meeting like SfN, presenting a poster is by far the best way to make this happen. No abstract, no poster. So submit an abstract, any abstract! Lock that 4-hour slot of time with a 6x4' easel board IN, folks. The absolute worst that could happen is that your lab explodes and you have to withdraw--which, though in theory sounds like you're making a public proclamation that you've Failed at Science, is honestly NBD. Do you actually think people are going to remember when you're applying for faculty jobs or up for tenure that you had a withdrawn poster that one time? No. Nobody cares. Your poster is but one in a long itinerary of things people are going to forget as soon as they get back to their hotel rooms.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have an abstract to write.

46 responses so far

  • Namnezia says:

    Outline of vague abstract:

    1. Such and such is an important question in neuroscience.
    2. Prior work from our laboratory suggested that such and such might be due to this and that.
    3. In this poster we examine the effects of this and that on such and such.
    4. Our experiments suggest that the role of this and that in such and such may be complex.

  • Dr24Hours says:

    See this is why I love reading this. Because I've never submitted an abstract until I had the whole thing done and the paper essentially written (or even under review). I'll have to try this. I'm going to poder exciting and vague abstracts now:

    "Engineering in Medical Science and Systems: A General Overview of Specifics."

  • I did my PhD in one of those labs where we were only allowed to go to SfN when we had a paper that was already submitted somewhere. That was because SfN was far away in America, with people attending that could easily scoop us, because they worked in America where most of the science happens (that was the line of thought of my PI). This year I wrote something along the lines of Namnezia's outline.

  • Ragamuffin says:

    My PI is a stickler for deets. Which is why my abstract will be submitted this evening.

  • DJMH says:

    The other danger in submitting an "I don't know, but this could be a really cool experiment if someone did it!" poster is that you do it, it's cool, but now you've shown your hand to the competition AND you're probably not far enough along that they can't semi-scoop you if they try really hard. This is my dilemma right poster or to lurk??

  • Susan says:

    Though you make good points, I've never been comfortable submitting results I didn't know in some sense.

    I'm not submitting anything this year for the first time in >12 years .... because I will have been in a New Faculty Job for 3 months by November, and I don't want to get into the conflict between new and old places, priorities, tipping my hat to competitors, etc. I will probably go and hopefully be interviewing postdoc candidates; but I may also take a break from the insanity, for the first time in >12 years.

  • Dr. O says:

    I always loved the vague abstract (and title), especially after learning that most people who came to my posters in the past did so in hopes of greeting my mentors. Once introduced, I'd lock visitors in with my amazing, epicsauce, ground-breaking science. Now that I'm on my own, I wonder how the vague thing will affect poster traffic; I guess I'll find out in a few months.

  • Heavy says:

    I'm with Becca on this one, vague abstract is a must. I'm usually analyzing data the night before a talk. As for posters, how about analyzing data on the drive to the conference with a quick stop at Kinko's right before. Data gotta be fresh.

  • Isabel says:

    "However, I had a completely different thing pan out at the last minute"

    And if you hadn't...? Would you have cancelled? Or made a vague poster and presented it?

    • Dr Becca says:

      If I had absolutely zero data--not even negative results, I probably would have withdrawn. Like I said above, it's not a career-ender. Disappointing, sure, but not the end of the world. And better than missing your chance! SfN only comes around once a year!

    • NatC says:

      There's always ALWAYS some data. Even if it's negative/troubleshooting. It still can be worth presenting, especially if it's a tricky/new technique, you get all sorts of feedback on what worked (and more commonly didn't work) for other people.

  • Confounding says:

    This year, because I'm submitting to a conference that at least talks a good game about not accepting vague abstracts, I'm actually doing the work ahead of time.

    It bloody sucks, and now my thought is "And you want this embargo'd until when?"

  • Dr. Dad, PhD says:

    Is there a review panel for abstracts at SfN?

    At the big conference I go to only about 50% get accepted. I should mention that as a reviewer I absolutely HATE vague abstracts - and score them with this in mind....

    • Dr Becca says:

      SfN is like 3rd grade soccer league--everybody gets a trophy (poster). As long as you submit by the deadline, you're in.

      • DJMH says:

        Leaving open the GIANT UNSOLVED mystery of why the fuck they want our abstracts 5 months in advance. I mean, we even choose more or less what session we want to be in--how is this anything other than a really big excel sheet on their end?

        My running hypothesis is that they still employ calligraphers at some step.

      • Jekka says:

        ...which is why it's only worth attending for the socializing.

  • katiesci says:

    THANK YOU! This makes me feel much better about the vague hand wavey abstract I wrote last night and will submit tonight (after PI approves vague title).

    Also, thanks to Namnezia for outline.

  • drugmonkey says:

    In the glorious future of e-paper posterboards we will just reserve a slot and be responsible for Tweeting up traffic ourselves...

  • Lady Day says:

    I remember visiting one poster, at a meeting a couple of years ago, at which the presenter (the PI, in this case, of a very small lab) stated: "since we submitted our abstract, the data have changed (to the opposite: positive results ended up reproducing as negative results, which were further validated as negative). I thought this was kind of an underhanded way to add a line to his CV for the presentation, though. Really, his data and his abstract were in direct conflict.

    I can see why he didn't want to withdraw the poster - it was small meeting with many bigwigs in our field present, and he probably just wanted to be noticed and have the conference on his CV.

    Personally, I like to have at least some reproducible, novel data in hand before submitting, so that my abstract is accurate. I usually end up adding a lot to the poster/presentation by the time that I present, of course. This year, because I was upset that some studies have been coming out lately, using flawed experimental strategies/set-ups, I actually wrote an abstract using data I've collected that points out the flaw (I don't want to say what the flaw was, since I don't want to be "outed" online). People use this particular flawed experimental strategy because it is a "time-saver." But, it may actually lead to extremely misleading experimental outcomes. Anyway, it's funny, but as basic as my abstract was (written on the due date, in a few minutes), it actually won an award and a nice oral presentation slot at a major society meeting.

  • Lady Day says:

    Another anecdote: I remember a grad student in one lab I knew in grad school who submitted an abstract for a big conference that was based on some preliminary positive data. It ended up getting selected for oral presentation. In the time between abstract submission and presentation, the grad student and PI ended up not being able to confirm the previous positive results - in fact, every indication (and the data, as presented in paper, later) was that there was no detectable difference between the 2 groups she was studying. However, the PI urged the student to show the previous results (obtained before the abstract was submitted), rather than withdraw the abstract. The PI also used the "positive" results as preliminary data for a grant application, knowing that the "positive" results were not reproducible (which is totally unethical, in my opinion). The grant got funded (the PI's first R01).

    So, I wonder: how much preliminary data and presented data at conferences is really representative of what will later be published? Abstracts *are* a type of publication, and I just think it's important not to be misleading, even in abstracts (that's what the withdraw option is for, after all). However, now-a-days, the rush to publish seems to make some people so desperate that they lose sight of the ethical thing to do. So, then, what can I trust at meetings, anymore?

  • gerty-z says:

    Meetings are booooooooorrrrrrrrrrrring if no one presents anything but published data. With a 5 month window after submission, if you want to talk about new stuff you are gonna have to be vague, and sometimes even wrong, when you submit your abstract. This is not "underhanded". And you shouldn't trust anything in meetings (or in print) unless you evaluate the data and think the conclusions are reasonably supported.

    also, who care how many conference posters (like SfN) are on your CV? No one is counting how many times you went to meetings.

  • Lady Day says:

    @gerty-z: The dude was not presenting published data. He was presenting data that was in direct conflict with what was reported in his abstract. While some of that is inevitable, in this case, it was totally off. He had the option to withdraw.

    I agree that it's boring to present published data. In fact, most abstracts for meetings I attend are required not to represent data that is already in print (only the big, keynote-type presentations show already published data, as those are typically "big picture" kinds of talks).

    In my area of science, this meeting is a big name meeting to have on one's CV. The meeting organizers are *incredibly* selective about abstracts and presentations, and presenting at this meeting is a big deal. Not sure about how things are for your field, though, so maybe you don't have meetings like this one.

    • Dr Becca says:

      I don't think that it's wrong or "underhanded" to present data that's different from what's in your abstract--better than presenting what was in the abstract, right? As I said in the OP, it's your job as a scientist to get people to listen to you talk about your science. If it's different from what you said you were going to talk about, have your listeners necessarily lost out? Have you?

      This particular meeting you're talking about, though, sounds different from any meeting I've been to in that I've never been to a meeting--even small meetings--where posters go through any kind of selection process (talks are a different story, of course). I've also never known any PI to put a poster on their CV, so it may be that this is just a difference in the culture between different fields. The SfN meeting is 30K people, so no one really cares what any one particular abstract says.

      Finally, this is a good point:
      how much preliminary data and presented data at conferences is really representative of what will later be published?

      And my answer is, it doesn't matter. Either you go home and try and fail to reproduce something that you saw at a meeting, so you publish that, or it does get published by the original poster presenters, and yay for them. As Drugmonkey notes, meetings are much more fun, interesting, and productive when the work you see and hear about is in its infancy--something that makes other scientists think and explore their own research in new ways, and independently, several groups may end up converging on complementary answers to big questions.

      • Dr Becca says:

        Oops. html fail, there. Close italics, dammit!

      • Lady Day says:

        OK, so I *do* think it was good of the guy to be honest at his poster. The problem, though, was that he completely changed the title of the poster, etc. I'm the kind of person who would withdraw the abstract and not present, if I were in his shoes. Maybe I'm being a little too picky, here, but I just like my abstract to at least be relatively consistent with what I present (even if I write something somewhat ambiguous). Also, perhaps I avoid what happened to that dude by verifying reproducibility of the key experiments described in the abstract before submitting. He didn't, obviously.

        Yes, this is a very small meeting. Speakers are invited, only, and poster abstracts are put through a pretty competitive selection process. Only a few hundred scientists, if that many, attend. But the people who attend are the "movers and shakers" in my area of science.

        I see what you're saying about getting ideas at conferences. The problem, for me, is that, when I contemplate the "big picture" after seeing bits and pieces of that picture presented throughout the posters/talks, I like to feel that I'm basing my thoughts on somewhat accurate data (that I may not have the time, funding, or energy to reproduce, myself, if it's just tangential to my own work). So, if I'm not getting much accuracy (not sure if that's the right word to use here, but I'll go with it because I'm tired) at meetings and I'd be getting more accurate data sets to contemplate from the literature, then, I lose motivation to attend much at the meeting besides my own poster/talk and the few get-togethers with friends/networking events. But, that's a personal preference, I guess.

      • Lady Day says:

        Just thought about this - and I'm not sure how many people do this, besides me - but if I miss a meeting or a poster or a talk, often, I will rely on the published abstracts (either in the books collected by colleagues who attended or in journals that publish their society meeting abstracts) to give me the run down on certain topics in my field. So, perhaps I shouldn't give those abstracts too much credibility, given that some of them may be giving me experimental outcomes that later didn't pan out as reproducible? Hm....

        • neuromusic says:

          i wouldn't give abstracts ANY credibility except to keep track of what other people are TRYING to do

          • NatC says:

            Yup, this!
            Also, if someone did get opposite results from their abstract/what they expected then it becomes a basis for some interesting discussion. (Unexpected results are sometimes more fun).

          • Lady Day says:

            Interesting way to look at it.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    Abstract mean jack shit. If your science hasn't advanced in 5 months it's either old news or not worth talking about.

    • Lady Day says:

      So, what do you mean if it "hasn't advanced"? Usually it does, right? Or are you talking about publication as "advanced"?

      Just as an aside, I'm planning to submit 2 more abstracts this year, to 2 very different meetings. The idea is that the manuscript will be under review/in revision at that time I present at both meetings. I want to present at both, and I think that one meeting (the one with the big shots that I mentioned earlier) will be particularly interested in my data. However, one of the big shots who usually attends that meeting is a notorious A-hole, and so I've waited a while to present this data to avoid more scoopage on that front (already semi-scooped by them last month, but they are so getting the story wrong... total flakes - and that is an understatement)... although that person may be a reviewer of my manuscript and may try to delay its publication, regardless. That is one of their tactics.

      • proflikesubstance says:

        By "advanced" I mean "is not exactly in line with the abstract submitted 5 months earlier". If it's published then people have already heard the story. If the story hasn't changed in 5 months and it's not published, then either you've hit a brick wall or no one wants to publish it.

        Abstracts are potential, but not fact. I would never put any weight on them for guiding my research.

        • Lady Day says:

          It's not "underselling" yourself if you don't have data or if you choose not to present data that still needs to undergo some more validation. There are a lot of conferences at which one can most likely submit an abstract that are each held at different times of the year. I see no reason to rush into something without checking accuracy, first.

          If abstract withdrawal is not a big deal (which is true for most cases), then why NOT withdraw if the submitted abstract and data to be presented are no longer consistent?

          • Lady Day says:

            Sorry - I meant to post this comment as a new one under the main post. This last comment was in response to a set of twits from yesterday between some people regarding my comments. I can't remember who made the "underselling" comment, but if it wasn't you, then I meant to write it to someone else.

  • gerty-z says:

    conference abstracts aren't "published", really. They haven't even been through peer review, and you can't actually see the data. They should inform your view of the field as much as the chats in the bar with someone you only kinda know. Fun to consider, but not to "believe". There are millions of abstracts describing data that never make it into the scientific literature. These posters/talks were not a waste, because they can spur interesting and important conversations that DO lead to important insights. Nonetheless, they are "wrong". But I think that the field in general would be WORSE off if all these people just withdrew their abstract.

    I agree with Dr. Becca, that there is some aspect of being an independent scientist that requires you to "sell" your ideas for the highest market price. If you are not willing to reach, and maybe be wrong, you are likely to sell yourself short.

    • Lady Day says:

      I guess I'm way more "conservative" than you guys, with my presentations.... It honestly has never occurred to me that other people may not be as "conservative" as me, and I've been in this business for a while, now. My colleagues (and myself) tend to have people from their labs submit abstracts when they are close to publication... mostly for fear of being scooped.

      Interesting to hear everyone's thoughts on this, though.

    • Lady Day says:

      I think, too, that we are in different "areas" of science. There may be a difference in "culture" here. I'm just basically emulating my grad school and postdoc mentors. You guys are all probably doing the same.

      I feel unwelcome here after reading the twits, so I think I'll stop posting, now.

  • Dr. Cynicism says:

    It's inevitable. I see the bait and switch (or even complete 180 results) all the time at several conferences. If you want a conference to be about brand new, unpublished data, then that's the nature of the beast. Don't feel bad -- just submit!!

    • Lady Day says:

      I know I said I'd stop posting, but here's a direct quote from the Neuroscience 2012 Submission Rules webpage: "Material presented at the meeting must be substantively identical to that described in the abstract. In particular, the title, authorship, and scientific content of the presentation at the meeting must match that in the abstract."

      You can read more at:

      I am good friends with a department chair that currently oversees psychology faculty (among many others) at his institution and who has judged abstracts for various other meetings before throughout the course of his career. I am also good friends with another department chair, who oversees engineering faculty at his institution. I asked both of their opinions on this matter, yesterday, and they both agreed that abstracts submitted at meetings should be in general agreement with the material being presented, and that is it highly unethical behavior to misrepresent one's science in a *publication* that *is* actually peer-reviewed (albeit in a different manner than journal submissions). Their consensus was that when an abstract is submitted and later discovered, by the presenter, to be misleading, it should be withdrawn.

      Just because something happens that you've observed, repeatedly, does not mean that it is ethical.

    • Lady Day says:

      The other thing to keep in mind is that some of the "data misrepresenting" abstracts may actually have won awards. In those cases, the presenting author is monetarily benefiting over *others* who may have actually followed the rules.

      This is a real problem if it is happening often.

  • Socal_dendrite says:

    So, I think there are two different issues here. Dr Becca's post was about submitting a *vague* abstract (and it not being the end of the world to withdraw the abstract if the expts don't pan out). I don't think there is anything wrong with this approach, especially at a conference like SfN. I see many abstracts written along the lines of Namnezia's "results suggest the role of x is complex", or even just left at "so we examined the role of x in y". There is nothing misleading about vague abstracts like these, and they certainly wouldn't win any awards so no issues there either.

    Otoh, I think it is wrong to have an abstract and title that *misrepresents* the data (as distinct from just being vague). Abstracts do form part of the published record, and can be cited etc, so it would be unethical not to withdraw if the poster shows the opposite result from the abstract. To me, the point of submitting a vague abstract is to avoid this exact problem. I always submit a vague abstract unless I am pretty sure that the poster results will be more or less in line with the abstract.

  • Scenic Science says:

    In my field we call these 'fabstracts' or fabricated abstracts...usually used in the derogatory sense.

  • Marta says:

    This may be culture-specific. Even though SFN does actually ask for work that's complete (new and unpublished as well), noone really takes much notice. You submit what you've been up to, attend, present. However, other conferences may have a different culture and you don't want to be known as a fabstracter in those communities. One thing though, if you have a weak or vague abstract forgodssake don't ask for a talk! I once did get a talk and my results changed from the abstract, but it was not like 'we lost the effect' but 'we added more data and this other thing also emerged'. Another time, a non-SFN conference, we did a second experiment and lost the effect (trended same way but not significant). We just put both experiments on the poster. It would have been embarrassing to give a talk on this and you'd have to make a call about what to include (choose between underwhelming talk and withholding the whole story). If you have a potentially weak effect, go "poster only". It's one thing to present a poster on null/conflicting/underwhelming data, it's another to have to talk for 15 minutes on your null/conflicting/underwhelming data.

  • Ada says:

    There is a very interesting discussion on the topic - "How to write abstract for conference when you have no results yet?" here:

  • Good post. I will be dealing with some of these issues as well..

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