RB Santos’ Guide to a Winning Abstract

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The 2nd International Conference on Evaluating Climate Change and Development has been confirmed for November 4-6, 2014 in Washington DC. A call for Abstracts has been communicated and June 30 identified as deadline for submission of proposals. As practitioners wrap their brains around words that could clearly and succinctly convey their message, Dr Romeo Santos, Climate-Eval member in the Steering committee of the conference offers a few hints at developing a winning abstract.

People are somewhat skittish when submitting abstracts to a conference. I for one ,feel the same, always. But to a climate change evaluation conference, the angst seems to thump a node or two higher. I can tell you why.

Certainly writing an abstract is a daunting task, and especially for the novice, there are plenty of worries and unknowns. Not that the Call for Abstract (or Call for Paper) is ambiguous, or the deadline is stiff. The reason maybe as forthright as ‘there is simply not an easy way to writing an abstract’. How can it be effective? What’s a winning abstract? What should be its focus? Can I deviate from the requisites? Lot of questions indeed! But the main concern can actually be, “how do I write”?

A Call for Abstract (CFA) is a well-structured for your information (FYI) document. It sets the theme, streams, criteria and other things that prescribe what should be submitted. CFA tends to guide appropriate writing. One needs to read and re-read it to get a good grasp of what are asked for. Because, just like responding to an RFP (Request for Proposal) when competing for an evaluation project, there is a rule to follow when submitting an abstract: “STICK to the TOR” (Terms of Reference). In a conference, the CFA is the TOR, and following this basic rule is essential.

However, in many conferences that I’ve been to, some presentations seemed to go out of bounds and become non-compliant! In one instance, the CFA sought abstract delving on impact evaluation (IE) and drawing lessons, with theoretical and methodological implications to evaluation practice. However, the actual presentation made was not about IE but focused on challenges of evaluation faced by practitioners in a particular country context – which is already a worn-out topic in most conferences. Admittedly, the overall quality of a conference is influenced by how presentations are done in accordance with the CFA. There is simply no sure way of guaranteeing the intended outcome of presentations during the conference, even if there is strict control and screening in place, such as requiring submission of powerpoints and manuscripts ahead of the event.

But maybe the biggest challenge is not just compliance. The challenge may lie on one’s writing capability, which is a result of years of work or training. In reality, it is more difficult to write a short composition than a longer one under this context. Take the case of a research work done in four years. If one were to report the results of the research using an abstract containing 150 to 400 words, it surely is a tough feat to make. But a winning proposal is a mastery of how it‘s done–through a minimum of words that captures the salient features of the study, including the problem; method used; and findings and results.But plainly stating these main elements alone may not make the abstract so attractive. There must be somethings else needed to make the work shine in the eyes of reviewers.In mainstream research, a panel of reviewers normally looks for 3 characteristics that make the proposal shine: conceptual innovation; methodological rigor; and substance (Przeworski and Solomon 2004). In line with these principles, one thing that can perk up the abstract is by using controversies, surprises or apparent contradictions in writing. This is a technique that puts spotlight on fresh ideas contained in the proposal,(if ever there are), which drawsthe reviewers‘ favor. For instance, in the statement saying;”Sanctions have earned the reputation as a policy option that almost never worked. But a recent review of impact evaluations of sanctions made by the US Government against ‘rogue’ states like Iran and North Korea shows that contrary to previously believed, new evidence points to sanctions as an effective tool and strategy -though with little incentives for altering elements of behavior among subject states”. What does this new evidence imply on evaluation?-a failure of method or a changed perspective? [Pardon with this example, for illustration only; it’s made like a gag and opposite of the source; Sullivan 2014]    There we are, only 80 words but coming with a punch and obviously an attention grabber!    

Maintaining sound, logical development of the idea and coherence of the thought flow are 2 good qualities of winning abstracts and papers that the writer should aspire for. A jumbled, jagged terrain of thoughts in a written composition will surely turn off readers and throw reviewers off their seats.So always remember – AIM for CLARITY.By the way, one caveat commonly overlooked in many CFAs is the inflexible prescriptions put upon proposals. More often, sought only are evaluation works that were already done and that have never been published. If for instance, submission is strictly for evaluation of programs in CC adaptation, mitigation, or CC’s interface with natural resource management, the issue of confidentiality is an important concern that arises. In many evaluation projects, CC or not, the commissioning party normally enters into a strict disclosure agreement with the consultant (service provider). The service provider is bound not to disclose indiscriminately details about the evaluation. In some cases, a prescription period is set to contain the disbursement of information. In this situation, one who writes faces a big dilemma. NOT that an author is totally prevented from submitting a work subject of diclosure agreement. But it entails really cautious skills in writing to come up with a paper free of encumbrances under this condition. The clear thing is –if the CFA will put a tight cap on what can be submitted, then the possiblity of narrowing the resource base for contribution is high. There might even be a greater risk of fabrication,embellishment, or distortion on the part of the writer, thereby compromising the objective of the conference. One good thing about the M&E community is the strong advocacy for engendering a culture of transparency, which is demonstrated through the generous sharing of informationand knowledge. What looks impressive to me is the readiness to share among practitioners. I seldom experience this type of openness in other areas of practice, be it in academia or the corporate world. The rich availability of knowledge platforms such as websites,blogs, and on-line debates and discussions, communities of practice and networks, as well as the regular holding of evaluation conferences is demonstrative of this. I see therefore the great importance of participating in evaluation conferences. Aside from gaining friends and networks in the evaluation community, there is the benefit of improving knowledge and skills in M&E, as well as in writing.

And so why not take the challenge? The 2nd International Conference on Evaluating Climate Change and Development is still months ahead (November 4-6, 2014), but I enjoin your active participation this early by preparing abstract for that landmark event. I also invite you for continuous discussion in this forum. The more we exchange ideas, the more we can share in collective enhancement of our skills, not just for writing, but doing evaluation. Who knows, it may help allay the concerns we normally have when submitting abstract to a CC conference. Feeling skittish is actually just fine-but knowing the angst better will make a difference.

Keep in touch…coming next is on why CC evaluation conference is a big challenge…

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