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This situation is not uncommon; in my case, I have to submit abstract for conference in September by the end of January already. But the problem is I have no results yet. I'm pretty sure that in those 8 months I will get pretty interesting results. But..

How to write smooth abstract without reporting results?

I started something along these lines:

  1. This and this is an important factor ...
  2. However, few studies on this topic have been done ...
  3. In our study, we compare this and this
  4. ??

Now the problem comes in point 4, where I should report some results.

  • How should I go around that?
  • What formulations should I use?
  • Shall I speak in present, future, or past tense? The studies are usualy written in past tense like "we analysed, we compared...", but in this case I would tend to present tense.

Thank you for your help. Examples are welcome!

P.S.: this is an interesting discussion however didn't give me actual guidelines of how to write it.

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12  
Don't do it. No results means no abstract. –  StrongBad Jan 24 '13 at 10:25
12  
No abstract means missed opportunity; I cannot afford that. I have to present results I'm sure I will have by the time of the conference. –  Tomas Jan 24 '13 at 10:30
11  
My suggestion is, if you're sure you'll have interesting results, write the reasons why you're sure. –  scaaahu Jan 24 '13 at 10:47
6  
I should point out: if this situation is not uncommon, you should be thinking of January as the deadline and not September. this is very common in CS for example. –  Suresh Jan 24 '13 at 17:15
6  
I find it fascinating that the "don't do it" and the "I can't afford not to" comments both have many upvotes. This definitely speaks to the pressure to publish at these venues. @DanielE.Shub –  eykanal Jan 24 '13 at 19:57

7 Answers 7

up vote 30 down vote accepted

Don't write results you don't have. Neither in the present, past or future tense. Just don't do it. Yet, I agree with you that there are circumstances where you do need to write an abstract on on-going work. For example, many big conferences in my field now ask for abstracts to be submitted up to 10 months in advance of the conference itself! If you are a post-doc staying on a 12-month project, you want to present something but you might not yet know how things will turn out. So, two techniques I propose:

  1. Just write about the methodology, and present your goals in a general way, without “predicting” particular results but insisting on the importance of the topic. That is, emphasize strongly your points #1 and #2, and then describe point #3 as you would your “results”. Things like:

    In this particular study, we compare the efficiency of methods A and B on given subsets of a reference database. We use a large number of different criteria for measuring efficiency, including …, … and … We also discuss in detail the implementation of subprocess X in method B, because its has not been specifically optimized in the existing literature.

    I know it sounds vague, but that's the best you can achieve honestly, without pretending to know what you expect to find.

  2. Bait and switch: if you have existing results in a closely related study, you can incorporate them as part of your results. Mix this approach with above, so that you have at least a few specific results to list in your point #4. Then, when you will make your presentation, just present your new results alongside the old (some people would remove completely the old results, but that makes it too much of a “bait and switch” for my taste). It is, after all, quite common for people to include newer results in orals/posters that they obtained after the original submission. It is not frowned upon, as long as you keep a decent agreement between the original abstract and the final content.

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Thank you. As for point 2. In the link I posted they justify bait-n-switch a lot, arguing that people won't remember. I wouldn't be afraid of that. The problem is that I have only small portion (like 1/8) of final results. I'm afraid that reporting this small subset of results would make it even more apparent that results are missing or cause people to think "..and that's all?" –  Tomas Jan 24 '13 at 11:02
6  
people won't remember — Careful. The internet remembers. –  JeffE Jan 24 '13 at 14:44
    
@JeffE, I agree with being careful, but the internet won't usually join the conference to see the poster or oral presentation. –  silvado Jan 24 '13 at 19:54
1  
If you mean 'write abstract, don't write results', that should have been put that way I think. –  Kris Jan 25 '13 at 8:54
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Inre: Bait and switch. I've seen more than a few people simply get up and say "Things have moved on since I submitted the abstract for this talk, and what I'm really going to talk about is <new abstract>". The audience understands the problem with abstract deadlines perfectly well. –  dmckee Jan 25 '13 at 18:47

The challenge with ever-earlier deadlines for conferences (sometimes six months or more in advance of the actual date!) makes planning for a conference a very difficult prospect.

You're left with only a handful of options, none of them particularly appealing:

  • Submit an abstract on incomplete research, and hope that the work is completed in time for the conference. In this case, you say something like "we will present our work on X, Y, and Z." You make no claims about the findings related to your work in those areas, though. You also try to edit the abstract, as appropriate and if possible, to better reflect the subject material that you will actually present at the conference.

  • Submit an abstract on already completed work. The advantage is you know you will have the results and you can put together a good presentation. The downside of this is that it means you will be presenting last year's results at this year's conference. If you are in a "hot" field, this can mean ceding significant ground to your competitors if they get just a little bit luckier than you, and they have findings just before a deadline and you don't.

Ultimately, there's no right answer to which option to take. You have to decide this based on what is expected of you in your field, and what impact this will have on you and your career (if you can opt for the safer track, or if you have to go for the higher-risk option). The only thing that you should never do, as I said above, and as other posters have mentioned, is make claims that you have not obtained.

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+1 for "no claims about the findings", assuming you mean those that are only wishful thinking at that point –  Tobias Kienzler Jan 25 '13 at 7:55
    
Presumably if you competitors have run and analyzed the experiment at the submission deadline and you haven't haven't run the experiment yet, you have more to worry about than a missed deadline. –  StrongBad Jan 25 '13 at 12:12

You cannot predict the future. You may obtain the results you hope for1. But things can also both go horribly wrong (your laboratory burns down, your samples mysteriously evaporate,...) or extremely interesting - you may happen to measure something beyond your dreams. Let your abstract only tell truths - what your (vague) setup is, what you want to measure and what you expect to happen. But don't pre-claim results when you cannot even foretell their existence for sure. Just be honest - say that you will present the results obtained by them, whatever they may be. I don't like cliffhangers, but they tend to work...


1 But make sure you don't "accidentally" measure only what you expect to be measured!

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Short Answer:
Writing something you didn't do as the time of submission is a lie even if you are sure you will have it eventually (I believe uncertainty exists everywhere).
It's simply not your turn this year, target another one or wait for the next year.


Long Answer:
I would speak from Computer Science (CS) perspective.
Submitting an abstract in CS conferences is one of two:

  • Submitting to the abstracts (short papers) track of the conference.
  • Submitting an abstract (i.e. 250 words) first then submitting the full paper. For example, these days AI has the big guy submission deadline.

I assume you mean the first case otherwise you will have no time for preparing your results.

Then the missing results is one of two:

  1. Part of the contribution (method)
  2. Evaluation (support) of the contribution (method)

In the first case, I really recommend not to submit at all unless your results are ready. You just do not have something new in this case.

The second case I will be more tolerated about it. In CS, you can play around it by:

  1. In case your missing results are the experiments of your method, you can do initial experiments and believe its the general case. Thus write your abstract based on it.
  2. Illustrate with examples and/or real world scenarios.
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1  
+1 for "[it] is a lie even if you are sure", though I wouldn't say don't submit at all - I've heard enough talks at conferences which deviated more or less from the abstract, usually "excused" by e.g. "I'd like to focus more on some results obtained after the abstract's submission", which is fine as long as long as it obviously is an extension of what the abstract promised anyway. It may be annoying that the abstract (which may be published at the proceedings) will not reflect the entirety of the work, but a) there may be a paper submission after the conference and b) you'll publish anyway –  Tobias Kienzler Jan 25 '13 at 8:02

I commented on the original question

Don't do it. No results means no abstract.

While this received many upticks, I have also been told

That sounds incorrect. Any references or related experience?

and that statement also has some upticks. While this is not an answer to "how to write an abstract" it attempts to clarify my comment (but is too long to be another comment). Hopefully it is helpful.

I think there are so many things wrong with writing an abstract without results that it is difficult to explain my thinking. The apparent reason for wanting to write an abstract without any results is

No abstract means missed opportunity; I cannot afford that. I have to present results I'm sure I will have by the time of the conference.

Which has recieved essentially the same number of upticks as my comment not to do it. I disagree with "I cannot afford that". I have never seen or heard of someone being denied tenure or a job because they didn't present at a conference one year. Hiring decisions are never so close that a single conference presentation (no matter how prestigious) sways the decision. I would argue that there are very few upsides to submitting an abstract without results and potentially some downsides.

Submitting an abstract without any results will not get you a place at a highly prestigious conference or a keynote address. It will get you a place at a conference that essentially accepts all abstracts, but not much more than that. In fields that I am familiar with conferences happen at least every 6 months and more often every 3 months. This means that by not submitting now you are merely delaying your presentation by 3-6 months. Therefore the cost of not submitting is a 6 month delay and a slightly different conference that is potentially slightly more prestigious (e.g., with results you might be able to get a talk instead of a poster).

In slow moving fields 6 months is essentially meaningless. In fast moving fields, 6 months is a long time, but in the fast moving fields I am aware of you don't present results until they are about to be published. This means you don't want to submit an abstract of results you don't yet have. Therefore I see very little cost of waiting for the next conference.

So what are the benefits of waiting. Again they are not great. The abstract will actually represent what you are going to talk about. You will likely get put in the correct session. There is a higher chance of getting a talk. If everything goes tits up, you will not have to withdraw. While most people will not remember, some of your close colleagues will and this could hurt future references. Withdrawing also screws over the conference organizers and they will not forget.

There is also the issue of how long do you need to get results. If the abstract was due the day of the conference, presumably you would want to have results before submitting the abstract. What about a week? A month? 6 months? Where is the line?

Finally there is the issue of integrity. While one can write the abstract to make no promises and only state the current truth, this is in fact difficult. If you do this frequently enough you will likely eventually make a statement that is a lie.

In an attempt to answer the question, what about:

We don't have any results yet as it is still N months before the conference. By the time the conference rolls around we are sure we will have something interesting. If not, we will present some old data or just not show up.

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The results for my project were not a pretty as expected, but I had months to optimize. Unfortunately the abstract had to be submitted asap. So I added great detail to background and methodology, some vague noises about the results, and ended with "preliminary results are discussed." It wasn't perfect, it sucked actually, but it did the job, and the results are now where they need to be for the conference in the summer.

I realize this feed was originally discussed in January, but figured anyone desperate on Google would see this and maybe see a glimmer of hope.

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Here is an example of an abstract with no results that was accepted for a conference: http://www.aacrmeetingabstracts.org/cgi/content/abstract/2004/1/254

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Thanks! This is useful! But note that link-only answers are discouraged. The link will very likely stop working in the future. Could you copy the abstract here, with a full citation? –  Tomas Sep 8 at 16:10

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