Outlook: Newsletter of the Society of Behavorial Medicine
Spring/Summer 2012 Return to Outlook Main page »

SBM Abstract Submission Process Demystified

Margaret L. Schneider, PhD, 2013 Program Committee Chair

As SBM Conference Program Co-Chair last year, I participated in the complex process that goes into planning and executing the annual meeting. It was very illuminating, and I realized how little I had actually known before about the decision-making process for selecting the proposals that are accepted for presentation at the conference, how the papers are grouped into sessions, when in the program specific presentations are scheduled, and so on. Discussions with SBM members confirmed that additional information about the process might be helpful, so the Editors of Outlook invited the Program Committee to contribute an article to this issue to help demystify the process.

To begin with, it might be best to review the chronology of the submission process. The call for abstracts comes out in June, at which time the on-line submission site is opened to receive abstracts. This site remains open until mid-September, at which time the on-line submission site closes. After that time, the only remaining opportunity for proposing a conference presentation is for the Rapid Communications Posters. Applications for Rapid Communications Posters are typically accepted from early November through early January. An important element of the conference program planning is that the review processes for the regular and Rapid Communications abstracts are completely independent. By the time that the Rapid Communications reviews begin, all of the submissions for the regular sessions have been reviewed. There is a separate Track Chair for the Rapid Communications abstracts, and these presentations will only be presented in poster format (acceptance rate in 2012: 91%).

Picking up the chronology of the reviews for the regular conference submissions, reviewing begins as soon as the on-line submission system closes in mid-September. Each abstract is assigned to a "Track" based on the submitter's choice. Each Track has a chair (or co-chairs for some of the larger tracks) who then assign the abstracts to 3 independent reviewers for scoring. Scores are submitted via an on-line system and are due by early October. The Track chair then reviews all the scores that have been submitted and adds his/her own comments, scores, and recommendations to those of the other reviewers. All reviewers are encouraged to include narrative comments to highlight reasons for the scores given. In particular, Track chairs are asked to provide comments when reviewers' scores are widely divergent.

All of the information from the Track chairs goes to the fantastic SBM management company whose staff manages the executive functions of SBM. Abstracts are ranked according to average scores. Using guidelines developed in previous years, the Program Committee adopts "cut-off" scores for poster-only submissions, as these are the most numerous. The thresholds may move a little each year, as we are always limited by the capacity of the particular hotel where we are holding the conference. The goal is to be inclusive and provide opportunities for investigators to present their research, which is one reason why this year, in San Francisco, we will be requiring a vertical format for posters. By moving to the vertical format, we will be able to maintain our usual number of poster presentations within the limitations of the exhibit hall dimensions. Some members may remember that we piloted this format in New Orleans in 2012, and received very positive feedback.

During a weekend in the fall, the intense program planning occurs. Over a period of 2-3 days, the Program Chair and Co-Chair, often assisted by the Past Chair as well, meet in person to sift through the abstracts and sketch out the program. Symposia and Panel Presentations are reviewed first, since there are a finite number of these sessions that can be accommodated in the program schedule. Acceptance rates are very high for panel presentations, but a bit more competitive for Symposia submissions (100% for Panel presentations, 85% for Symposia in 2012).

Next, the "poster or paper" presentations are reviewed. Because the volume of submissions is so high, the Program Committee cannot read each and every abstract, so cut-offs are used to separate those that are considered for inclusion in the program from those that have received consistently low scores. With regard to Poster-Only submissions, the committee usually does not read those below the cut-off scores. For the remainder, the cut-off scores are used primarily as a flexible guide. At this point, the submissions are grouped according to content area, since history has shown that conference attendees prefer to choose their sessions to align with their disciplinary area. Within each of the content areas, abstracts are read (at least one member of the committee reads every abstract that makes it to this point in the process), ranked, and grouped. Every effort is made to group papers with similar content, and to find a place for every submission with a score above the cut-off. This part of the process is very time-consuming, as Program Committee members work diligently to try to find a place for every meritorious presentation and to group presentations with similar content. Once determinations have been made as to which abstracts will be accepted for presentation at the conference, and how papers will be grouped into sessions, the staff at the SBM management company create a draft program schedule. The schedule is reviewed by the Program Committee, and an attempt is made to avoid having overlapping sessions that might appeal to the same pool of interested members.

An important element of the program to bear in mind is that the program content (beyond the invited speakers) is entirely driven by submissions. There is no prior determination of what proportion of the program will be devoted to what topic. Unlike some other professional conferences, SBM does not allocate sessions to particular constituencies. The content at each Annual Meeting is a function of what topics are featured in abstracts submitted for consideration.

We hope that this article has somewhat demystified the process for our membership. This process has evolved over the many years of SBM conference planning, and we feel that it has consistently resulted in a meeting that features timely, high-quality research presentations, thought-provoking conceptual sessions, and ample opportunities for trainees to gain experience and present their research. As we move ahead toward planning the conference for 2013, we encourage members to continue submitting their work for presentation to an audience that represents the best in behavioral medicine.

HINTS: To maximize the probability that an abstract will be accepted to be presented at the conference, it is in your interest to observe the following guidelines:

  1. For empirical studies, make sure that you are describing a study that has sufficient data at the time of submission. Saying that "data will be obtained prior to the conference" or "data will be discussed" is a surefire way of dramatically increasing the likelihood that the abstract will not be accepted.
  2. Be explicit about your sample characteristics, study design, and findings. Use numbers and provide p values where relevant.
  3. Proofread your abstract (and ask someone else to proofread it). Poor grammar or awkward sentences make it hard for a reviewer to evaluate the science.
  4. Consider choosing "paper or poster". A little-known fact is that if the Program Committee cannot find enough papers to group with your presentation to make a coherent paper session, and if you have indicated "paper only", your submission may be rejected, regardless of the reviewers' recommendations. In 2012, 51% of "paper only" submissions were accepted, compared to 95% of "paper or poster" and 96% of "poster only". If you have reasons to prefer a paper presentation over a poster, consider organizing a symposium.