Great on paper but will it fly?

April 28, 2006

If you want a paper accepted for a conference, be sure your research is original, intriguing and 'scientifically rigorous'. But don't fret over presentation skills - it's content that counts, writes Harriet Swain

We take everything," says one practised 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 if they want to call themselves an event rather than just a longish meeting.

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 know that their careers could be made if their paper is chosen.

These often have a dedicated committee of researchers who peer review submissions and discuss at length which ones should be accepted.

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. Because the BPS attracts plenty of media attention, it regularly receives submissions that sound interesting but are light on science. While organisers always welcome publicity for their event, they do not want to discredit it by accepting papers that create a media buzz without being academically rigorous.

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 fundamentally flawed. "If a very basic error is pointed out at a conference, journalists won't necessarily hear it," Ward says.

The society is trying to get conference organisers to recognise this danger and is encouraging researchers to be more open about how early a 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 scream out and make a difference," says Peter Main, director of education and science at the IoP. Those that do not offer something qualitatively new are more likely to be consigned to a poster presentation.

This is also often the fate of papers dealing with less fashionable subjects. 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" and tapping into the Zeitgeist is an important consideration. "If you are presenting something timely and well done, you will get more out of it in terms of people coming up and asking you about it and all the other advantages that stem from being at a conference," he says.

Often the structure of the conference will be determined by the choice of keynote speakers, generally chosen for the pulling power of their research or for their personalities. Other papers will then be slotted into the themes dictated by the keynotes. While the main speakers will sometimes be selected in part for their ability to present, substance will always win over style because of all the other elements involved in speaking at a conference, such as networking and answering questions, 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 at least competent in the language of the conference.

Another consideration, especially for conferences that are supposed to be international, is having representation from a wide range of countries. In such circumstances, 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 so as to achieve a good spread of experience.

The advice to anyone submitting an abstract to a conference is to follow the rules: make sure it is the right length and presented in the right way; 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 slightly 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 feels it wants to encourage people or hasn't had as large a take-up as it anticipated then the organisers may be more amenable to bending the rules a bit."

Further information
The Royal Society:
British Psychological Society:
Institute of Physics:
Association of British Professional Conference Organisers:


  • Submit something
  • Make sure what you submit is of high quality
  • Be original
  • Try to tap into the Zeitgeist (but don't be too obsessive about this)
  • Follow the submission rules

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