By David P. Steensma, MD
Perhaps no aspect of the ASH annual meeting is quite as mysterious — or provokes as much delight and disappointment — as the process by which submitted abstracts are reviewed, ranked, and then shaped into the official meeting program. This year, the Program Committee, coordinated by ASH Secretary Armand Keating, MD, received a record number of submissions: 6,314 abstracts, more than 450 above the previous high-water mark set in 2005.
The annual meeting abstract review process underwent an important change this year. Reviewers were blinded to the names of abstract authors and their institutions, in order to diminish the risk of a biased review. Of course, authors who inserted their institution or organization’s name within the body or title of the abstract thwarted this protection; likewise, many reviewers have extensive knowledge of current research activity in their review category and easily could have guessed which studies came from which investigators. While no peer-review system can eliminate all subjectivity, this change should at least reduce irregularities.
Almost all of the 58 abstract category areas included at least one reviewer from outside of the United States and Canada. In fact, many review groups had several, or even a plurality, of international referees. This year, 55.6 percent of annual meeting abstracts were submitted by international investigators representing more than 60 countries outside of the United States. Ensuring that international members continue to be regular participants in the abstract review process and all other aspects of the Society is a high priority for ASH.
Increased abstract numbers meant that a slightly smaller proportion of submissions were selected for presentation in 2008 than in previous years, although additional oral sessions have been added on Monday evening this year to help maximize the number of abstracts that could be presented. This year, 14.2 percent of reviewed abstracts were chosen for oral presentation, and 48.2 percent were selected as posters, while 13.1 percent abstracts not picked for presentation were withdrawn by their authors. Because 70 percent of ASH members surveyed last year recommended elimination of the printed version of the second “publication-only” ASH abstract book, the other 24.4 percent of abstracts that were neither withdrawn nor selected for presentation at the meeting will be published exclusively on the Blood Web site.
Each abstract submitted for review requires payment, which is not atypical of other scientific societies. These funds pay for abstract-related costs such as the online file submission system, technical support, and conference calls with the abstract reviewers.
All abstracts are reviewed by six or seven invited referees, supported by a coordinating reviewer. Individual scientific categories had as many as 189 submissions this year, and referees had less than three weeks to complete their review. It does not take much imagination to understand how rapidly reviewers must analyze abstracts; this highlights the need for authors to write clearly and unambiguously to ensure fair, accurate judgment of their work.
Reviewers assign each abstract a score from 1 to 10, with 1.0 considered the best score possible and 10.0 unacceptable for presentation. The mean score is a general determinant of how an abstract will fare in the final program, but on rare occasions, abstracts with scores that would put them in the top of the poster range are elevated to oral presentations because of topicality or perceived impact. Reviewers also help identify which abstracts are potential Plenary Session candidates, but final selection of those six high-profile abstracts is done by the Program Committee, rather than by individual reviewers.
This is the second year in which ASH offered a late-breaking abstract deadline in October (in addition to the general deadline in August), for abstracts describing novel studies of high importance. The bar is quite high for acceptance via this mechanism — no more than six abstracts are chosen to be presented together in a special oral session on Tuesday morning — but the Society recognizes that some exciting research findings may not be available by the general abstract submission deadline, and intends to continue this mechanism.
Regardless of how your abstract fared this year, it is important to keep in mind that abstracts are exciting, but good science and quality patient care are their own rewards.
Dr. Steensma indicated no relevant conflicts of interest.
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