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I wonder about the future of peer review for conference abstracts. While it is a critical filter for high-quality journals, it is a very inefficient process for accelerating innovation and discovery at conferences.

Many healthcare and STEM conference business models are heavily dependent on participants who are able to justify their attendance in part because their oral or poster abstract has been accepted. We’ve analyzed some conferences in which the percentage of attendees who are on the scientific program is as high as 80 percent. We refer to these conferences as meetings of speakers speaking to speakers.

If your conference has the “speakers speaking to speakers” model, the primary avenue for growth has been to make room for more speaking slots or add to the poster-board footprint. But increases of this kind usually only result in further diluting the quality of the conference experience.

Flip the Approach

In Michael Jubb’s research article, “Peer Review: The Current Landscape and Future Trends,” he writes that there are “growing opportunities for researchers to publish non-peer-reviewed articles for review in an open environment.”

Many scientific journal articles cover details on research that has been completed. Conversely, most conference abstracts cover work that is in progress.

If we apply these principles to the scientific meeting session design, these work-in- progress research projects should be more than just presented, they should be reviewed and improved in our conference — or to use Jubb’s term, “open” — environments.

To accomplish this, scientific meeting organizers will need to shift from expert-centered, rapid-fire, low-engagement oral abstracts to conversation sessions during which peers help shape the research project’s next steps. To accomplish this, abstracts should be available in advance so peers can come prepared to critique, much like the flipped-classroom model.

No More Mr. Nice Guy

This flipped concept to create peer critique sessions isn’t new. That model really goes back to the roots of scientific meetings. Collaboration to improve the research — and the research process itself — has gotten lost as we’ve accepted more abstracts and made decisions to give students a chance to present. Not too many years ago, researchers would openly challenge findings. Today, we’re more worried about hurting feelings than improving discovery.

For your next conference, introduce a new session format designed so that research projects are improved, not presented. Use a session-format term like “peer critiques” to help describe the session design and to set the expectation for constructive criticism. Make the abstracts available in advance via video, digital poster or in written form. Encourage the attendees to come to the session with honest opinions and advice. Abstract submitters should check their ego at the door so that they are in a frame of mind to welcome and consider all feedback.

Adapted from Dave’s Forward Thinking column in PCMA’s Convene. Reprinted with permission of Convene, the magazine of the Professional Convention Management Association. ©2020.

What changes are you considering instituting that will be increase collaboration and discovery with conference abstracts? How is peer review evolving in your journals?

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