So You’ve Been Asked to Revise Your Conference Abstract… Now What?

Sharing your research at a conference or symposium can open up a lot of doors professionally, and allow you to get your research out to the wider world. But there’s a small hurdle to clear first: getting your abstract accepted.

In some cases, it’s very straight-forward. Step 1: write abstract. Step 2: submit abstract. Step 3: acceptance!

In other cases, you may be asked to revise and resubmit.

If you’ve recently submitted an abstract to the AUT Postgraduate Research Symposium, you may be going through this process now.

It’s tempting to be disappointed when asked to revise – not only is there the small ego bruise of not being immediately accepted, but there’s also more work to do. Hmph.

Pen and paper in front of crumpled balls of paper.

But it’s important not to take it personally. Being asked to revise an abstract is not necessarily a sign that your abstract is bad; in fact, it is often a sign that the event organisers see value in your work and want to move forward. (Otherwise, they’d simply reject it.)

The key point is: even excellent abstracts can be returned for revision.

There are many reasons why you might be asked to revise an abstract:

  • to better fit the event’s theme / sub-themes
  • to be better pitched to the level of the event’s audience
  • to make some aspect of the research clearer
  • to make clearer what the presentation / paper / poster will cover (since this is often a sub-aspect of the research project more broadly)
  • to make the formatting more consistent with other abstracts in the event programme (particularly if you’ve missed a key detail like a limit on word count or references)

So: what can you do to get your abstract over the line and into the programme?

Read the feedback

A ‘revise and resubmit’ request should always contain some form of feedback… otherwise, how would you know what to change? Read this feedback carefully, and decide if/how you want to follow it. As the author, you have the right not to accept the feedback. It is entirely possible that a reviewer has misunderstood your choices; in which case, you may like to explain your reasoning. But generally, following the feedback is a good way to get your abstract accepted.

This is especially true if the feedback is about compliance issues. If your abstract does not comply with the rules about word counts, formatting, reference limits, etc, then it is unlikely to be accepted.

Consider your audience

One of the most common reasons we ask PG Symposium contributors to revise their abstracts is because they need to better suit the level of the audience. If you are applying to a very specific conference that is tailored precisely to your field of research, then you can go nuts with technical jargon and discipline-specific language. If your chosen conference is more broad, you may need to explain your content for an audience that isn’t necessarily from your field.

The PG Symposium is aimed at a very broad audience – the whole university – so abstracts for this event need to be pitched to the intelligent layperson. We receive a lot of abstracts that would be perfectly pitched for a specialist academic conference; but just need to be clarified slightly for a general audience.

Be clear about what’s in your presentation

If you are contributing a paper, presentation, or poster to a conference, you are almost certainly going to have to select an aspect of your research on which to focus. A 15-20 minute conference talk cannot cover an entire Masters or PhD project; nor can an A1-sized poster cover an entire thesis. You may need to select one part of your research to highlight, while skimming over others.

Some people in the early stages of a project might focus on their literature review, with only limited reference to the wider research project. Others focus largely on reporting their findings, without explaining their research context or methodology in great detail. My own rule of thumb was to draw each conference contribution from one chapter of my PhD thesis. Whatever it is, ensure that your abstract explains clearly what you will present at the event, in the context of your research more broadly.

Use your word count wisely

Word limits exist for a reason. They are set high enough so that conference attendees can judge whether they want to engage further with your research; but short enough that the programme is a manageable length. If your abstract is too short, you may not be giving as much information as the conference requires. Too long, and your abstract won’t fit in the programme. Ideally, you’ll want to be in that Goldilocks spot of around 90-100% of the word limit.

You’ll also need to balance your words. If half your abstract is context, then there isn’t enough focus on your research. Similarly, if you’re planning to report your findings, but spend three-quarters of your abstract describing your methods, then the balance of your abstract is out of whack.

The bottom line is that conference organisers want abstracts that are clear about the research and the presentation. If you can respond to a ‘revise and resubmit’ notice with an abstract that is balanced, compliant, descriptive of the presentation, well-pitched to the audience, and which incorporates any other specific feedback, then you have the best possible shot of being accepted as a presenter.

About Anaise Irvine

Dr Anaise Irvine is the Editor of Thesislink and leads the Researcher Education and Development team at Auckland University of Technology. Her PhD research analysed how contemporary films and novels represent genetic engineering as a social justice issue. These days she works with researchers at all levels to improve their research skills, and the most obscure of her own research skills is being able to turn novels into phylogenetic trees!

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