Conferences presentations and in the conference abstract books there are often gems and lots of pearls of useful information. I often blog live from conferences (eg here and here) or peruse abstract books looking for gems (eg here and here). The problem with conference abstracts can be the lack of detail on the study to judge it and they are not subject to the same scrutiny of peer review that a full journal publication is; so how much weight in the grand scheme of things should a conference abstract be given? They have to be interpreted in that context of the lack of detail and the lack of peer review. There are examples I have seen where the preponderance of evidence on a topic may be altered to be in a different direction if the unpublished conference abstracts were included or not included in that body of evidence under consideration. That is a worry. A large number of conference abstracts never make it to full publications, despite they being ‘gems’ and would be a valuable addition to the body of peer reviewed literature on that topic.
Way back in 1999, I published this that looked at the publication rates of abstracts presented at the main diabetes conferences in Australia, Europe and the USA. The rates were 26%, 49% and 53%. At that time, those figures were pretty consistent with other disciplines. My attention was just brought back to this by this recent publication in Foot & Ankle International which looked at the publication rates from the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society meetings. They found it was 73.7% for podium presentations and 55.8% for posters. That is a bit better than the ~50% that I found and is often reported in the literature as a pretty typical publication rate reported.
So if 50% of conference abstracts never get published in full and not subject to a thorough peer review, that is a whole lot of valuable research that is not being given the appropriate weighting to the findings, especially if the results have the potential to alter the ‘preponderance’ of evidence on a topic. They will not be included in the systematic reviews and meta-analyses.
In a perfect world it will all get published. Why don’t they get published? I have a lot of research that I have done that is still in conference abstract form and other research that I have not published. The only excuse I have is that I just never got around to publishing it. Maybe its laziness or just never got around to it as other work and priorities take over (family; work and research interests change). In some cases, there may be methodological issues that came up after and occasionally it was rejected from publication following peer review. I assume its the same for others as well.
I have blogged about some of my studies not published (eg here and here), as blogging about a study is helluva lot easier than going through the peer review process! BUT, I have also been very careful to state what I am saying in that context and take it for what it is, interpret it how you like and give it whatever weighting you want given the lack of methodological details and lack of peer review.
Williams, B., Kunas, G., Deland, J., & Ellis, S. (2017). Publications Rates for Podium and Poster Presentations from the American Orthopaedic Foot & Ankle Society Foot & Ankle International DOI: 10.1177/1071100716688723