Have you submitted your ERS abstract? Did you feel the fever?

27 June, 2016

Scientific spring?

February always brings the first glance of spring, and….. the ERS Congress abstract deadline. This forces all of us as scientists in the field to stand back and to make up our mind. Have we been able to generate sufficient data on the research questions that we are working on? Would our findings be relevant to others in the respiratory field? And do we merely submit are our most solid and entirely crystalised data or is the ERS Congress also meant to share work in progress? One thing was obvious this month: the only way to really participate in the scientific melting pot of London 2016 was meeting the abstract deadline.

Pan-European temperature rise

At ERS meetings we are all exchanging enthusiasm, data and ideas during the posters sessions and oral communications. This is the best moment of the year for our scientific community. But what we are hardly sharing is how we came to submitting our abstract in the first place. Let us have a look in the kitchen….. Also this year, it must have been a pan-European or even global temperature rise when all the authors of those >6,000 abstracts (let us say around 30,000 people in total) are analysing, discussing, preparing, writing, rewriting, shortening, further shortening, uploading, submitting (or eventually not submitting…) the definitive 1,810 characters by February 15, 12:59 Central European Time. The buzzing of these 30,000 scientific honey bees seems to be an even larger activity than the actual congress itself. Nevertheless, my impression is that we are hardly talking about this amongst colleagues. To what extent are we sharing our kitchen habits in science? Should we not do so?

The time interval between the deadline and the congress does not help in this. While I would like to acknowledge (from experience) the enormous work to be done for reviewing the abstracts and building the programme, it seems to be somewhat outdated to require submission of scientific developments in the 21st century more than 6 months ahead… We are all peaking twice each year, is that the purpose of the meeting? It could be.

How are you actually handling abstract fever?

When were you starting to prepare your abstract? Every year we intend to start early (weeks ahead), in order to adequately digest the data before submission. Sound scientists would not do otherwise, would they…? What happened to us (again) this year? The final 48 hours or less were needed to produce the definitive data and the best wording for the abstract. You may argue that the deadline forces us to provide top quality work. Would that really be true? And are we the only ones here? Or are we all rushing into abstract fever that eventually boils down to compromises in relation to our original ambitious plans, leading to consider submitting a so-called rescue-abstract…?
When attending the congress all abstracts and presentations seem to be based on solid, well thought-through concepts and messages. Or were you also pressed by last minute decisions when submitting it? And more importantly, would that be wrong? Or is an abstract meant to reflect our excitement about the most recent data and to test the waters on those observations during the congress in September? The latter seems to be reasonable. But what if continuation of the study between the deadline and the congress (e.g. increasing the sample size in case of submitting preliminary data from an observational or in vitro study) has changed the data? What will you be presenting?

Who is going to submit and present?

There are two approaches for stimulating young scientists to attend big meetings, such as the ERS Congress. One of them is: “Well Dr Smith, when you have gathered all your data close to the end of your project, we will certainly support you in attending a big international congress, so that you can show the world the exciting outcome of our study”. This is the attitude that emphasises ‘transmitting’ messages at congresses.

The alternative approach is: “Well Dr Smith, you will mostly benefit from going to a big international meeting as soon as possible, to present your first, preliminary findings and to learn from all the feedback and interaction at your own and other presentations”. This is the attitude that promotes ‘receiving’ messages at the congress. What is best? How have you been handling this, this year? You may already have gathered that I am favouring the latter approach, in order to educate and to train young colleagues and to promote open and intensive exchange with colleagues in the field.

Hiding data?

In some areas of respiratory research colleagues apparently are not willing to share their data at meetings such as the ERS Congress. What is their reason? First, this can be driven by competitive thinking: why should I show my exciting results to my direct competitors, who may rapidly copy and publish the study...? This may be an understandable point of view, even though fundamentally it does not fly. Research is a collective enterprise and we should be able to ensure our own original contribution in relation to others. I learnt this from Freddy Hargreave, who told me to focus on doing original things properly and not to be defensive. Second, there might be square commercial reasons for not sharing data at meetings. This is regrettable and should be limited to the bare minimum where this is inevitable and based on the primary objective of the study (e.g. at particular stages of drug development).

However, it is remarkable that more and more honest researchers are undesirably dreaming (or have been told to keep dreaming) of patenting some of their findings to the benefit of themselves or their institutes. In my field this is, for instance, illustrated by unjustified attempts towards patenting exhaled volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These are metabolites that could qualify for biomarkers, which should be exchanged and validated between research groups for the benefit of patient diagnostics and management. We have got really off track when we are trying to make money in this respect as opposed to moving the field forward. It impedes research, does not make real money and does not benefit any individual or institute. It is our duty to silence our patent-officers and to play our part in our scientific community. Please educate your research fellows in this respect!

Message

Yes, submitting abstracts is a joy and a responsible activity. It is the glue that binds us together. Again this year, the collective fever and chaos close to the deadline must have led to pearls of scientific progress…. See you in London!