“We take everything,” says one organiser of small conferences in the humanities. “Unless the standard of written English is dubious or the subject matter bears no relation to the subject of the conference, we'll accept it.”
Most small-scale specialist conferences can't afford to be too picky. So you're almost sure to get a positive response if you pitch your abstract at a small conference.
At the other end of the scale are prestigious international conferences where a keynote speaker will command audiences in the hundreds and young researchers’ careers could be made if their papers are chosen.
What governs the selection of papers is as varied as the types of conference, says Dianne Stilwell, public relations manager for the Institute of Physics.
Patrick Leman, chair-elect of the British Psychological Society's conference committee, says quality is by far the most important criterion.
Papers need to be “scientifically rigorous” and ethically sound. They also need to make a contribution to the field either by filling a theoretical gap or by addressing something from an applied perspective.
The Royal Society is conducting research on how conference papers are subjected to peer review after a study showed that in some cases more than half are never published in journals.
Bob Ward, a spokesman for the society, says researchers tend to treat their work for conference papers as preliminary results and consider the feedback they get from the conference to be part of the informal peer-review process.
This means that an abstract that excites a lot of media attention may relate to a paper that is flawed. “If a basic error is pointed out at a conference, journalists won't necessarily hear it,” Ward says.
The society is encouraging researchers to be more open about what stage their research is at.
Despite the problems, originality is high on the agenda of those picking potential conference papers. “Every conference organiser is looking for something new that will make a difference,” says Peter Main, director of education and science at the Institute of Physics.
Leman says organisers will usually try to have a good spread of topics and this will mean revisiting important areas. But he says that there will always be topics that are particularly “hot”.
Often the structure of the conference will be determined by the choice of keynote speakers chosen for the pulling power of their research or for their personalities. While the main speakers will sometimes be selected in part for their ability to present, substance will always win over style, Leman says.
Presentation is rarely an issue in the selection of other papers, because in many cases none of the selectors knows enough about the speakers to make a judgment. However, they will usually have to confirm that they are competent in the language of the conference.
Another consideration is having representation from a wide range of countries. Certain papers may be selected to encourage scientists from developing countries who would otherwise find it difficult to mix with their academic peers, Main says.
Those selecting papers will also have to keep a close eye on age and gender discrimination, and may favour papers from younger age groups.
The advice to anyone submitting an abstract to a conference is to follow the rules. Make sure the paper is the right length and presented appropriately; make sure selectors appreciate that the research is original; pitch it at a level that will allow selectors to understand it, even if their expertise is in a different area; and avoid claiming that you have achieved results before you've completed the experiment.
But, ultimately, the main consideration is the quality of your submission, although the desperation of the organisers does come into it.
“By not following the rules, you aren't going to win yourself any friends,” says Stilwell. “But if a conference wants to encourage people or hasn't had a large a take-up, then the organisers may be more amenable to bending the rules.”