I have data, ESA, I promise!

Last week, as I was working on my ESA abstract, I realized that I was including things that I wouldn’t normally, just to make sure I showed I have data in hand. The ESA Abstract Guidelines include this requirement:

The abstract must report specific results. The results may be preliminary but they may not be vague. Abstracts without explicitly stated results will be rejected. It is understandable that abstracts describing non-traditional work may lack quantitative data; however, it is still expected that the abstract will address some question and have a “take-home message” describing specific findings.

The abstract I submitted this year combines what will end up being two different publications. We’re working on one of those publications now, and just have a few loose ends to tie up before it will be ready for submission. That project redescribes a parasite that attacks developing embryos of Daphnia, and characterizes its phylogeny, virulence, and ecology. But I’m guessing the phylogeny part won’t be as exciting to an ESA audience, and the virulence stuff can be summarized quickly, so I decided to combine portions of this first manuscript with a second, less fully developed analysis. That second project deals with both the parasite we’re redescribing and another one that is similar in some ways (in that both sterilize their hosts but do not affect lifespan) but differs in other key ways (one is an obligate killer, the other is not). The main data component of this second project is two years of field data on these parasites in 15 lakes. We have lots of data, and I’ve done some analyses on them, but haven’t fully analyzed them.

So, to summarize, I was writing an ESA abstract for a talk where we’ve done a ton of work, but I haven’t finished analyzing everything. The abstract guidelines are clear that that’s okay (and I’m sure it’s common). I, like many other people, want to talk about new work at ESA, and also use it as a deadline to motivate me to finish up some analyses. But, since I don’t know what the threshold is for enough specific results in an abstract and I want to be sure I’m above it, I suspect I tend to put more in than really would be needed. (*see footnote below; I am NOT criticizing this requirement!)

When I wrote my abstract last week, the point where it really struck me that I was tailoring my abstract because of this requirement was when I wrote:

Infections of both parasites were observed in all six host species and all 15 lakes. However, there was substantial variation between lakes in the prevalence of infection, with infections rare in some lakes but common in others.

After writing that, I thought, “Hmmm, is that specific enough? That could sound kind of vague and like I haven’t really analyzed the data on this.” So, I added in these sentences right after:

In 2014, maximum infection prevalences of the brood parasite reached 4.9-8.7% of the entire population and 9.1-20% of the asexual adult female population. Maximum prevalences of the bacterium ranged from 0.2-54.5% of the population.

That’s probably excessive detail for an abstract, but at least it makes it clear that we really do have data and it’s certainly specific!**

How much do you tailor your ESA abstract to address that part of the guidelines? Have you had an abstract rejected because it didn’t contain enough specific results?

 

*I want to emphasize that I am NOT criticizing ESA for this policy. It makes sense to me that they want to be sure there’s a reasonable chance the person can give a talk that will be interesting to others (and a talk with no data is less likely to be interesting). And I can’t even imagine the amount of work that goes into sorting through all the abstracts and making those decisions. I’m glad I do not have to do that! I’m simply describing how I think about that guideline (maybe more than is necessary) while writing my abstract, to try to make sure I’m above whatever bar there is for specific results.

**My abstract ends by talking about ongoing analyses that we are doing, so it makes it clear that we haven’t fully analyzed the data yet.

8 thoughts on “I have data, ESA, I promise!

  1. Let me preface what I’m about to say by saying that I have tremendous respect and appreciation for the ESA meeting organizers (to any ESA meeting organizers reading this: thank you *so* much!) They have a huge, difficult, and often thankless job, and they do it really well. I *love* the ESA meeting. So while I’m about to complain about something, it’s not *that* big a deal in the grand scheme of things.

    So: I don’t like the ESA’s demand that abstracts include specific results, which in practice often gets interpreted as numerical results. Yes, you want to make sure that people who submit an abstract actually follow through and present. But ESA already has a policy that does that: if you submit an abstract and then back out, you forfeit your abstract submission fee and you can’t present the next year. They don’t need another one.

    As for wanting to ensure that people who submit an abstract will give a reasonably interesting presentation that has data in it…sorry, but I don’t think the ESA has any way to enforce that. Abstracts are not an honest signal, because there’s no cost to a false signal. There’s no cost to just sticking in some numbers, even if those numbers aren’t very germane–heck, even if those numbers are made up! Nobody cites ESA abstracts, and there’s no cost to showing up on the day and not presenting the results you said you’d present. The only purpose of abstracts is to help people decide what presentations to attend. As long as you don’t pull a bait and switch and present something unrelated to your abstract, your abstract fulfills that purpose. And in practice, I very rarely see people giving crappy, data free ESA presentations (or presentations on previously-published work, or etc.), and that was true *before* the ESA changed their abstract regulations a few years ago. So I don’t think the new abstract regulations have had any effect on the quality or content of ESA presentations.

    In trying to force presenters to on the one hand present new work, but on the other hand have the work all done more than 6 months before the meeting, I think the ESA is trying to enforce the impossible for many presenters. For me, and I think for many other people, an ESA abstract is a commitment device–I submit one in order to commit myself to analyzing one of several datasets I could present on. But it’s just not possible for me to do more than very preliminary analyses so far in advance–I don’t have time because I’m teaching and I have other higher-priority duties. So while I would never submit an abstract I don’t plan to present, and would never show up at ESA and give a crappy data-free talk because I didn’t actually do the work my abstract said I did, I feel like the ESA’s abstract regulations are trying to force me to work in an infeasible way. I feel like the ESA is trying to force me, and the many people like me, to give an infeasibly high priority to ESA prep, infeasibly far in advance. That doesn’t make me any more likely to present a good talk on new data–as I said, I always do that and always will. It just obliges me to pretend that my results-as-of-February are less preliminary than they are.

    Further, if you look at the abstracts of published ecology papers, they rarely contain numbers. In requiring numbers–or at least in appearing to require numbers–the ESA is actually requiring either more specificity in their abstracts, or a different sort of specificity, than ecology journals require. Which seems unrealistic.

    In fairness, I wonder if there’s another purpose to the abstracts–to help ESA decide which presentation applications to accept? That is, does ESA actually get many more abstract submissions than can be accommodated, so that they need to pick and choose somehow? So that, even if everybody who submitted an abstract met the formatting requirements, ESA would still reject a bunch of abstracts? If so, then ESA is in a tough spot of having to pick and choose without any good basis on which to pick and choose.

    I think the ESA should simply ask authors to make their abstracts as specific as feasible.

    • “Abstracts are not an honest signal, because there’s no cost to a false signal. There’s no cost to just sticking in some numbers, even if those numbers aren’t very germane–heck, even if those numbers are made up! Nobody cites ESA abstracts, and there’s no cost to showing up on the day and not presenting the results you said you’d present.”
      I’m not so sure about this. Google Scholar is now indexing ESA abstracts. So, aside from obvious ethical problems with making up numbers for an abstract, someone who did that should be concerned that those numbers/results will be easily searchable and attached to their name. There are some papers that I’m keeping an eye out for, based on having read an abstract I found through a Google Scholar alert. In many cases, I probably wouldn’t notice a change in specific numbers, but if there was a big difference in results, I’d be pretty curious about what had happened. I think there is much less of a cost to giving a talk on a different topic than to submit an abstract with numbers you don’t feel reasonably confident about.

      “Further, if you look at the abstracts of published ecology papers, they rarely contain numbers. In requiring numbers–or at least in appearing to require numbers–the ESA is actually requiring either more specificity in their abstracts, or a different sort of specificity, than ecology journals require. Which seems unrealistic.”
      Yes, this is exactly what I was getting at — that the way I write an ESA abstract is different than the way I’d write an Ecology abstract, because I feel more like I have to put in lots of numbers to show I have data for my ESA abstract. (Again: I have no idea if this is true, but it’s how I read that guideline.) I disagree with your last sentence, though. I don’t see how it’s unrealistic to require more details than a manuscript abstract. Just different. Unless perhaps you mean it’s unrealistic because the meeting abstract is often written well before a manuscript is written?

      Time for lab meeting!

      • Good point about how Google Scholar now indexes ESA abstracts. Though old fogey that I am, my attitude is to view that as a flaw in Google Scholar, and to resist the urge to start taking ESA abstracts more seriously just because Google Scholar now indexes them.

        Re: wondering why there was a big difference in results between an ESA abstract and the subsequent paper, I wouldn’t wonder at all. I’d just assume it was a case of someone putting preliminary analyses in their abstract that turned out not to hold up. Which I think is fine. Preliminary analyses are preliminary, they’re not always going to hold up. ESA abstracts should be thought of as abstracts of something even more tentative and less finished than a preprint, and treated accordingly.

        “Unless perhaps you mean it’s unrealistic because the meeting abstract is often written well before a manuscript is written?”

        Yes, exactly.

      • I agree that it would be better if Google Scholar didn’t index ESA abstracts. It keeps trying to update my profile with old ones and I keep telling it not to.

    • I’m with Jeremy. He nails it with:
      “In trying to force presenters to on the one hand present new work, but on the other hand have the work all done more than 6 months before the meeting, I think the ESA is trying to enforce the impossible for many presenters.”

      Meg, my conclusions are typically like your first draft, showing that I have data in hand and a first-pass overview of analysis. FWIW, I’ve always had my abstracts accepted as talks (all three of them 🙂 ).

      • “FWIW, I’ve always had my abstracts accepted as talks (all three of them”

        I’ve never had an ESA abstract rejected, and I’ve done way more than three talks. 🙂 And I’ve never even heard of anyone being rejected, except that back when ESA brought in the new abstract rules they rejected a few abstracts for violating the rules. But this is purely anecdotal, I would be interested to hear the anecdotes of others. Have you ever had an ESA abstract rejected, and if so, were you given a reason? I’d also be interested in knowing the data–what fraction of abstracts does ESA reject? My hypothesis would be that it’s very low (and always has been), but I don’t know.

      • My impression is that as long as you are presenting what looks like ecological-related science, your abstract won’t be *rejected*. But a good number of *talk* abstracts get “demoted” to posters. I put demoted in quotes because there’s a good argument that presenting a poster is more useful than presenting a talk.

  2. Pingback: Friday links: consequences of stopping the tenure clock?, faculty trends, and more | Dynamic Ecology

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