By Professor Joy Cullen
This guideline covers
- Key components of a good abstract
- Some specific questions - a checklist for the reviewer
- Peer reviewing and issues such as maintaining neutrality
- Providing feedback on the abstract / proposal
An abstract for a research paper should be sharply focused, concisely written and identify the major aspects of the research to be covered in the proposed session. Reviewing an abstract for a research conference is similar to reviewing a research article although there are obvious constraints on the amount of detail provided in an abstract because of word restrictions.
Notwithstanding, a strong abstract will allow the reader to identify the substance of the paper, and will not rely on generalities. Enough detail should be provided for the reviewer/conference participants to be able to identity the type of study and make informed choices about which sessions to attend.
The abstract should address the specified requirements and general comments that do not address these key points specifically should not dominate the content. For a research conference, implications for future research should be addressed alongside consideration of what the findings actually mean – for practitioners, policy makers, parents, families or communities, i.e. the practical implications.
Some specific questions
- Is the abstract no longer than 250 words?
- Does the title correspond to the research focus? Are key words in the abstract?
- Is the purpose of the research stated clearly? The reader should not need to infer the focus or research question from general introductory comments.
- Who are the research participants? Is sufficient detail provided about age, gender, setting (home, centre, community) to allow the reviewer to ascertain the appropriateness of the research design for addressing the research question?
- Is the methodological approach identified? Interpretive, survey, case study, etc.
- What specific methods/ procedures were used, i.e. what did the researcher(s) do to obtain results?
- Are main results presented? Do results correspond logically to the research question or focus? Absence of findings may suggest that the research may not have been completed, or even started – and therefore a risk for conference quality.
- Is there a statement regarding future research directions? Absence of this statement may also suggest that the research is incomplete. A researcher should usually be able to suggest a research direction arising from either the substantive findings of a completed study, or a limitation of the methods.
A common error in peer-reviewing is for the reviewer to evaluate the abstract/proposed paper from the perspective of how the reviewer would conduct the research and write the paper. The researcher is entitled to adopt a different or unique perspective and approach to a topic and need not conform to the reviewer’s particular take on a topic. What is important is that the abstract is explicit about theoretical/philosophical assumptions and the methodological approach, not that it should agree with the reviewer’s stance.
The rise of qualitative research methodologies, including teacher research, has highlighted the issue of what actually constitutes research. Does a teacher’s monitoring of patterns of play following modification to the play environment constitute research? Is professional development a form of research when outcomes are recorded? Do a researcher’s subjective reflections about her/his research mean that it is not really research? Such distinctions can be subtle and the label of research somewhat arbitrary.
Each of these examples may constitute research however to be judged in this way the project should meet rigorous criteria that characterise research, e.g. conducted and documented systematically; procedures are open to scrutiny and replicable; theoretical perspective is explicit; results are evidence based – empirically, logically, theoretically; conclusions are justified on the basis of evidence; report is available for publication/release and therefore external scrutiny.
Quantitative studies are able to be judged by well-established criteria, relating to reliability and validity. The abstract should include a short statement about the research design and specify major steps to achieve reliability and validity if word limits allows for this. Major statistical procedures e.g. factor analysis, regression should be identified.
Note that the research issue may apply to quantitative data also. For example, descriptive statistical data may be collected by organisations for administrative purposes. Does the project meet criteria for evaluating research, e.g. as listed above? Is there a replicable research design? Is the project situated in relation to relevant literature and theory – a common gap in presentations that present data gathered for other purposes? Is there an obvious conflict of interest that has not been addressed?
The proposed session may be part of a larger project. Details about the larger study are helpful in ascertaining whether the research to be presented actually is research (see point 4 above) but should not replace details about the aspect of the research to be covered in the session. It should be possible for the reader to establish how the data for the proposed session relates to the research design of the larger study, e.g. one case study from a multiple case study design. Consider whether the data to be presented constitute a viable research presentation, e.g. is the database slight and unsupported by reference to other research or literature?
Group paper presentations, if drawing on the same wider study, should address all required criteria across the separate papers. If individual presentations within a group presentation are separate studies, each presentation should address the required criteria, and the linking theme or topic should be clearly identified.
Provide specific feedback about any gaps, ambiguities, inappropriate emphases in the abstract so that the writer can improve future conference submissions.
Include a statement about what is positive in the abstract. Rejections can be very discouraging for beginning researchers and acknowledgement of what is good about the abstract can help the writer to stay focused on the goals of presentation and publication.
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