How to Write a Conference Report

1. DEFINITION

A conference report can be one of many kinds. However, let us make a few assumptions and, from these, try to devise a picture of what a more-or-less typical conference report should look like.

It all starts, of course, when you are invited to participate in a conference (congress, symposium, workshop, panel discussion, seminar, colloquium), the proceedings of which will be published. At that early time, you should stop to ask yourself, and the conference convener or editor, exactly what is involved with the publication.

The biggest question, yet one that is often left cloudy, is whether the pro­ceedings volume will be defined as primary. If you or other participants pres­ent previously unpublished data, the question arises (or at least it should) as to whether data published in the proceedings have been validly published, thus precluding later republication in a primary journal.

The clear trend, it seems, is to define conference reports as not validly published primary data. This is seemingly in recognition of three important considerations: (1) Most conference proceedings are one-shot, ephemeral publications, not purchased widely by science libraries around the world; thus, because of limited circulation and availability, they fail one of the fundamental tests of valid publication. (2) Most conference reports either are essentially review papers, which do not qualify as primary publication, or are preliminary reports presenting data and concepts that may still be tentative or inconclusive and that the scientist would not yet dare to contribute to a primary publication. (3) Conference reports are normally not subjected to peer review or to more than minimal editing; therefore, because of the lack of any real quality control, many reputable publishers now define proceedings volumes as nonprimary. (There are of course exceptions. Some conference proceedings are rigorously edited, and their prestige is the equal of primary journals. Indeed, some con­ference proceedings appear as issues of journals.)

This is important to you because you can determine whether your data will be buried in an obscure proceedings volume. It also answers in large measure how you should write the report. If the proceedings volume is adjudged to be primary, you should (and the editor will no doubt so indicate) prepare your manuscript in journal style. You should give full experimental detail, and you should present both your data and your discussion of the data as circumspectly as you would in a prestigious journal.

If, on the other hand, you are contributing to a proceedings volume that is not a primary publication, your style of writing may be (and should be) quite different. The fundamental requirement of reproducibility, inherent in a primary publication, may now be ignored. You need not, and probably should not, have a materials and methods section. Certainly, you need not provide the intricate detail that might be required for a peer to reproduce the experi­ments.

Nor is it necessary to provide the usual literature review. Your later jour­nal article will carefully fit your results into the preexisting fabric of science; your conference report should be designed to give the news and the specula­tion for today’s audience. Only the primary journal need serve as the official repository.

2. FORMAT

If your conference report is not a primary scientific paper, just how should it differ from the usual scientific paper?

A conference report is often limited to one or two printed pages, or 1,000 to 2,000 words. Commonly, authors are provided with a simple formula, such as “up to five manuscript pages, double-spaced, and not more than three illustra­tions (any combination of tables, graphs, or photographs).”

Today, conference reports often appear in electronic formats, either instead of or in addition to print. However, the principles remain the same.

3. PRESENTING THE NEW IDEAS

As stated, the conference report can be relatively short because most of the experimental detail and much of the literature review can be eliminated. In addition, the results can usually be presented in brief form. Because the full results will be presumably published later in a primary journal, only the high­lights need be presented in the conference report.

On the other hand, the conference report might give greater space to specu­lation. Editors of primary journals can get quite nervous about discussion of theories and possibilities that are not thoroughly buttressed by the data. The conference report, however, should serve the purpose of the true preliminary report; it should present and encourage speculation, alternative theories, and suggestions for future research.

Conferences themselves can be exciting precisely because they do serve as the forum for presentation of the very newest ideas. If the ideas are truly new, they are not yet fully tested. They may not hold water. Therefore, the typical scientific conference should be designed as a sounding board, and the pub­lished proceedings should reflect that ambience. The strict controls of stern editors and peer review are fine for the primary journal but are out of place for the conference literature.

Because conference reports may interest readers largely because of the new­ness of the ideas, submit your report promptly. Sometimes, the reports are due before the conference. Other times, they are due shortly afterward, allowing you to add ideas that emerged at the conference. In either case, submit your report by the deadline, so as not to delay publication or posting. If your paper is due shortly after the conference, a good approach can be to draft it before the conference and start revising it during the conference, while discussion of your presentation still is fresh in your mind.

The typical conference report, therefore, need not follow the usual introduc­tion, materials and methods, results, discussion progression that is standard for the primary research paper. Instead, an abbreviated approach may be used. The problem is stated; the methodology used is stated (but not described in detail); and the results are presented briefly, with one, two, or three tables or figures. Then, the meaning of the results is speculated about, often at consider­able length. There is likely to be description of related or planned experiments in the author’s own laboratory or in the laboratories of colleagues who are currently working on related problems.

4. EDITING AND PUBLISHING

Finally, it is only necessary to remind you that the editor of the proceedings, usually the convener of the conference, is the sole arbiter of questions relating to manuscript preparation. If the editor has distributed instructions to authors, you should follow them (assuming that you want to be invited to other confer­ences). You might not have to worry about rejection, since conference reports are seldom rejected; however, if you have agreed to participate in a conference, you should follow whatever rules are established. If all contributors follow the rules, whatever they are, the resultant volume is likely to exhibit reasonable internal consistency and be a credit to all concerned.

Source: Gastel Barbara, Day Robert A. (2016), How to Write and Publish a Scientific Paper, Greenwood; 8th edition.

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