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I am currently taking a brief course in Technical/Academic Writing. At one point, in passing, the lecturer (who's a researcher in linguistics himself) mentioned that one should not confuse a conference abstract with an article abstract, with the exact phrasing "... that's a whole different story."

Unfortunately, at that moment in time I did not reflect on what those differences might be, but now I am writing a conference abstract I realize that I have never really paid much attention to the fact that I am not writing to a journal. Besides the fact that a conference abstract is preamble to a primarily spoken form presentation (poster/oral) instead of a written one, I don't really see why it would be "a whole different story".

Assuming that there are no differences in requirements and limitations, what are the fundamental differences, between a conference abstract and an article abstract, that one should be aware of?

PS: if it matters, the field I'm mostly concerned about is medical research

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To me an article abstract summarizes the entire article including the overarching questions through methods, results to the major conclusions.

A conference abstract will of course also summarize whatever is presented at the conference. The differences lie in several aspects of variable weight:

  • Conferences are often focused on a specific topic so one can be less stringent with the background
  • Conference presentations may involve work in progress and as such the final conclusions maybe quite hazy.
  • The conference abstract may be written before most of the work has actually been done (this is quite common with some conferences in my field) and becomes an "advertisement" for what might come.
  • The conference contribution may in some cases involve a paper but can also be a poster or an oral presentation. depending on which abstracts may contain varying levels of finalized conclusions.
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I think your professor was talking about extended abstracts (see this question for more discussion). For many conferences, especially those that don't publish their proceedings, people submit an extended abstract instead of a paper. Thus, in that case the 'abstract' is basically a short paper that summarizes results you are working on or planning to publish soon. It is much more detailed that an abstract for a paper, but less detailed than a whole paper would be.

If your conference publishes its proceedings though (as many in computer science, do) then you should treat your conference submission like a journal one and write the abstract accordingly.

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