Constructing the Perfect Clinical Microbiology Abstract

April 1, 2019

Why wasn’t my abstract accepted to Microbe 2019?
 
We’ve all been there. You upload your abstract to the Microbe website, and finally hit “submit.” It’s the culmination of sweat, effort and sometimes even tears.
 
Maybe you are eager to share your science.
 
Maybe you want honest feedback from your peers in the poster hall.
 
Maybe you’re hoping to draw the attention of a respected colleague.
 
Maybe you are just trying to justify a trip to San Francisco.
 
Regardless of the reason, we know that developing these abstracts is a significant, and sometimes emotionally draining, effort.
 
When that disposition email pops up in your email, it is with mixed feelings that you click on the link to see what the decision is and I think we all have a similar sick feeling to finding a rejection notice in the mail.
 
Over the past 2 years, as chair of the Clinical and Public Health Microbiology (CPHM) track for Microbe, I have had the difficult job of reviewing all the rejected abstracts for a final disposition. We all want our meeting to showcase the best of the best research – having an abstract accepted shouldn’t be a given - but it is hard to find a balance between accepting the top abstracts vs. rejecting abstracts that are clearly written by more junior investigators who haven’t been advised or mentored in the process.

Why are Abstracts Rejected?

When the abstract are reviewed (this year they were reviewed by 2 independent volunteer reviewers), there are 12 reasons for why they were rejected:
  1. Poorly written.
  2. Research was not new.
  3. Duplicate content submitted in another abstract by the same authors.
  4. Combine abstract (needs to be combined with a duplicate abstract, generally related to #3, above).
  5. No clear hypothesis.
  6. Missing methods section.
  7. Insufficient data (Data not objectively gathered, analyzed and reported.  Inadequate sample size for the study. Statistical evaluation not included where indicated.)
  8. No conclusions.
  9. Not appropriate for the meeting.
  10. Promotional in nature.
  11. Case report.
  12. General description only.

The most common reasons for rejection by the reviewers:

  • Insufficient data (25% of rejections).
  • Poorly written (23% of rejections, note usually because one or more of the below are missing).
  • Missing methods (17%).
  • Missing reason for study (7%).
Laboratory verification studies are generally not acceptable topics for a CPHM Microbe abstract. Evaluations of commercial or laboratory developed products must include use of appropriate, comparator reference methods and evaluate a sufficient number of isolates/specimens to be accepted. Typically, laboratory verification studies don’t contain quite enough data for this purpose.

How do I write a good abstract?

When writing an abstract, use a structured abstract format, one divided clearly and succinctly into the categories below:
  • A clear hypothesis / problem statement.
  • Methods description.
  • Real data, including a clear statistical analysis of your findings.
  • A conclusion. 
Some other pointers:
  • Ensure the methods section contains sufficient detail so readers can interpret the results.
  • Don’t submit something if you don’t have the data “in hand.” A good rule of thumb: if anywhere in your methods or results you have future tense verbs (e.g., “we will present”) it’s a good sign that it’s not ready to be submitted.
  • Include numbers in your methods section. How many samples? How many isolates? How many replicates? This is especially important if you report results in the form of percentages.
  • Include numbers in your results. I.e., vague statements like, “results were satisfactory” or “performance was good” are not acceptable. Rather, state what you saw! “Results showed X% sensitivity and Y% specificity.” Even better – include some confidence intervals to those numbers!
  • Ask a colleague to edit your abstract – it can be painful, but it’s worth it in the end. This can be a colleague you know well, or you can seek out a mentor who is willing to work with you.

Often in clinical and public health microbiology, very important findings are only ever communicated in an abstract, and so to ensure your science has the biggest impact, it should be able to stand alone.

How can I fit all this information within the limited word count?

Based on my experience reviewing many abstracts submitted to ASM Microbe’s CPHM track, the easiest place to cut content is the introduction. An abstract should focus on summarizing your study, not justifying why the study was conducted. That can be done verbally during the poster session.
 
The methods, results and conclusions can be stated very succinctly including sufficient details where the reader can interpret the results.  

How to include data from commercial partners?

One item that is a bit unique to CPHM is how often we work with our commercial colleagues. Therefore, the rejection code # 10 above (“promotional in nature”) can be a bit confusing. Abstracts the describe assessments of currently approved products are welcomed, as we all want to learn from each other’s experiences with these. Below are examples of features of acceptable abstracts:
  • The authors are from industry.
  • The study is an evaluation of an IVD (FDA-cleared), RUO or laboratory developed test.
  • Preliminary studies on the performance of in-development tests.
  • “Best practices” commentary on implementing a new technology.
In contrast, statements that sound like they were cooked up by a marketing team, such as “the best method on market!” would be red flags for rejection.

Can you provide an example? 

Sure; let’s critique an abstract from a recent article I published in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology. This is a decent abstract, but there is always room for improvement.  
 
Here is the original, at 279 words:

What can be improved?

  1. Make it shorter
  2. Provide more details in the method section, allowing stand-alone interpretation of the data (more on this below)
  3. Use the abstract format (discussed above)
1. Cut back the word count:
 
The introduction is pretty succinct. We could get rid of a couple of words, nonetheless:

The methods are too long. Look at how I can cut it from 55 words, to 26:
 
Original:

Revised:

2. Provide More Details in the Methods Section
 
A lot of the methods was already discussed in the beginning sentences of the abstract (i.e., I am evaluating ciprofloxacin testing, the breakpoints were revised in 2019, I am evaluating only Enterobacteriaceae).  If I further critique my own methods section, I would say I omitted the following important information:
  • What type of media was used for disk diffusion, Etest?
  • Where disk diffusion, Etest and broth microdilution done in parallel?
  • How did I evaluate the results? What methods did I use? 
Here is how I can fix that in the abstract (added text in red):

The bulk of the abstract is the results section, which is appropriate. It can still be cut back, from 174 words to 96.
 
Original:

Revised:

The conclusion is short and sweet, but can still be cut back by 12 words:

All told, I have cut back my abstract down over 100 words and added important methods information! 
 
3. Use Structured Abstract Format
The final, improved paragraph will read like this:

ASM also has resources that can help you improve your skills varying from writing an abstract, a paper, or even putting together a slide deck.  Visit: https://asm.org/Careers/Professional-Development to learn more about their offerings.
 
 

Author: Romney Humphries

Romney Humphries
Romney Humphries is a diplomate of the American Board of Medical Microbiology and the Chief Scientific Officer, Accelerate Diagnostics.