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A scientific meeting of minds

Academic conferences present researchers with a fantastic opportunity to share their work, gain feedback, and spark new collaborations. But to attend most conferences you must submit an abstract of completed work, months in advance. What if you’re just getting started? Roni Tibon, together with Rik Henson and other members of the MRC CBU Open Science Committee, raised the issue in a recent article published in Trends in Cognitive Sciences. Here Roni guides us through the problem, and what they see as the solution.

Roni TibonA call for abstract submissions opens for a great conference in July. The deadline is early January.  Many of your colleagues are going and it’ll be a wonderful opportunity to get input on your work and learn about other peoples’ research.

But as you check the submission guidelines, you realise that the conference organisers ask for abstracts to include results and conclusions, and you can’t provide any conclusions. Maybe you’re still collecting data, considering your design or haven’t started running your experiment yet.

So, what will you do? Decide not to go to the conference? Quickly analyse some data so you can include preliminary, and potentially premature, results? Submit an abstract about other work that’s nearly completed, but for which the opportunity to gain feedback has largely passed?

Changing the guidelines

In our paper we argue that rather than revising our ’end user‘ behaviour to comply with the submission guidelines of conferences, the guidelines themselves should be changed. Crucially, such changes would involve a revised submission and review process that addresses the current limitations.

We propose a process that allows submission under several ’progression stages‘, such as planned studies, collected data and analysed data. The key idea is that the evaluation of studies to be presented at conferences should be based not only on their outcomes but on their potential.

The scientific arena already has other established platforms that present and promote discussion of completed works – this is what peer-reviewed journals are for. Now it’s time to establish platforms that stimulate discussion throughout additional phases of the lifecycle of scientific work.

Receiving feedback on experimental designs and analysis plans from peers, who could point out flaws or possible additions before investing time in collecting or analysing data, would promote rigorous research and reduce costs. The unmediated communication that is possible at conferences makes them an ideal platform for this purpose.

Helping early-career researchers

Although the proposed changes to the abstract submission and review process would be beneficial to the scientific community as a whole, they could especially benefit early-career researchers. While more established academics usually work on several projects simultaneously, and are therefore involved in studies at various progression stages, the work of early-career researchers tends to be more linear. This means they’re more likely to find themselves at a particular time point, when the call is open, without an eligible abstract submission.

Given that for many scientists, and especially early-career researchers, travel funding is only available when a project is to be presented, the proposed process would allow more scientists to attend conferences. What’s more, some of the core benefits of academic conferences, such as receiving feedback from colleagues, advancing communication skills and meeting with potential collaborators, are especially vital for scientists at the beginning of their academic career. It’s a way of establishing their own networks.

Encouraging open science

In a broader context, the idea that conferences can promote a continuous scientific discussion fits well with the Open Science principles. The Open Science movement promotes pre-registration of research questions and analysis plans before studies begin, with the aim of advancing transparency, rigour and reproducibility. This can be achieved via presentations of planned work and analysis plans at scientific conferences.

As science gradually becomes more open, transparent and collaborative, there’s no time like the present to change the way we run one of the most important sounding boards that exist for exchanging scientific ideas.

 Read the full paper: Title TBA: Revising the abstract submission process

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