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Why not be inclusive rather than exclusive when selecting abstracts for conferences?

The American Society for Bioethics and Humanities (ASBH)
is the leading U.S.-based society for many bioethicists and humanities
scholars. ASBH’s mission is to promote “
the exchange of ideas and fosters multidisciplinary, interdisciplinary,
and interprofessional scholarship, research, teaching, policy development,
professional development and collegiality among people engaged in clinical and
academic bioethics and the medical humanities.
” It achieves these goals
by stimulating discourse through meetings, developing its own publications and
even impacting policy and practice. One major achievement by ASBH is its
attempt to standardize the practice of clinical ethics consultations by
developing the
Core Competencies in
Health Care Ethics Consultation
now available as a second edition. A
second, equally important, achievement is ASBH’s annual meeting.

As with all annual conferences, ASBH has a call for
abstracts for individual presentations and panel sessions among other venues.
They have a process of peer review and selection for accepting abstracts either
for individual oral presentations, posters, panel sessions, program workshops, and
preconference workshops. What I have noticed is for the last two years, I have personally
not had anything accepted at the ASBH annual meeting. In fact, of the few other
times I have applied, I have only been accepted to present a poster. Being
Canadian and entering the field of bioethics around 2004, I believe I have
attended only two ASBH meetings, one of which was way back when ASBH had a
joint meeting with the Canadian Bioethics Society and the last one in 2010. I
do however submit similar abstracts of my research to other bioethics, science,
and medical conference which results in its acceptance for a talk or poster,
but this seems to be a rarer case at ASBH. Throughout the years, I have
discussed why ASBH is so selective in its abstract selection process with my
bioethics colleagues and all of them say the same thing – “it’s hit or miss
with ASBH.” And after being rejected now two years in a row, I decided to
inquire a bit more into why this may be the case.

From a brief discussion with someone who works at ASBH, I
was informed that they have a rigorous peer review process where they only
accept 50% of the proposals. Their three stage review process involves begins
with anonymous review by three ASBH members selected for their expertise in
designated subject areas. Using a 5-point scale, each reviewer scores the
study’s contribution to knowledge, innovativeness in the approach used;
relevance to bioethics and humanities; cross-disciplinarity; and quality of the
written proposal. The second stage involves a single expert reviewer for each
category assessing all of the individual and average abstract scores taking
into consideration significance, innovation, relevance, breadth of topic, and
appropriateness for the meeting. The final review stage consists of a
face-to-face meeting of the Program Committee which considers assessments from
the first two stages to select the strongest proposals that address topics of
interest to a multidisciplinary community. The program committee also attempts
to balance topics and scan for unique or unusual proposals. While all of this
sounds great, I would urge ASBH leadership to consider an alternative approach
in their selection of abstracts and design of their program for the annual
meeting for two reasons. The approach I advocate should be more inclusive
rather than exclusive and this can be achieved by having a larger poster

First, let’s consider peer review in multidisciplinary
fields for a minute. I have questioned the rigor of peer review in bioethics in
an article published in the journal
in Research
(Master, 2011). Concepts
like “originality” and “validity” mean different things in different
disciplines and I also cited a couple of empirical studies that show that peer
review of multi/interdisciplinary proposals tends to be biased and receive
lower scores where the reviewers grade more highly proposals that are closely
related to their disciplines (see Porter and Rossini, 1985 and Langfeldt and
Brofoss, 2005). Given that proposals submitted to the ASBH conference cover a
range of different disciplines or are multidisciplinary in nature, one can
suspect similar biases during peer review and possibly lower inter-reviewer
reliability scores. I think all of us who have submitted bioethics grants,
papers for publication, and who have served as reviewers for conferences,
papers, and grants can attest that in many cases, we see diversity in reviews
where some rate the proposal or paper highly while others lower. I think all of
us who have spent some time in bioethics have been frustrated with peer review
where we feel that the reviewer “just doesn’t get it.” And my suspicion is that
stage 2 and 3 of the peer review process by ASBH is not blinded, and if so, does
that lend itself to greater bias during selection. While I have tried to remain
objective in my criticism, I am not very confident that even with a rigorous
peer review system there is not some bias or arbitrary selection of abstracts. My
aim here is not to discount the peer review process by ASBH or to call for its
abandonment. In fact, I think they are doing the best they can and it sounds
like they have applied rigorous standards. But I wonder if such a rigorous
process is even needed if the overall approach to selecting presentations is
more inclusive rather than exclusive.

My second point is that I think ASBH should seriously
consider how it manages poster sessions and if they were to increase the number
of poster presentation, they can use a more inclusive approach to selecting
more than half the abstracts. While exclusivity for journal publications and
grants are based on different rationales i.e., limited resources, limited
reading space, and that there are many venues to publish papers, I am not clear
why an exclusive approach would be a way to design a large, international
conference. Of the few times I have been to the annual ASBH meeting, and from
speaking with colleagues who do attend more regularly, there are about 20
posters per conference. This is in sharp contrast to most scientific and
medical science conferences which have hundreds of posters and massive poster
sessions. Perhaps the history of humanities conferences more generally lend
themselves to giving talks as opposed to posters which may partially explain
the reason for the limited number of posters at ASBH. However, I think this
should change.

I have sat on abstract selection committees for
scientific conferences and while we might be selective in deciding talks for plenary
and breakout sessions, generally very few abstracts are completely rejected and
most abstracts are selected as posters rather than talks. I have been to other
bioethics conferences where this is not always the case and there are ample of
people presenting posters. I believe there are several reasons why having more
robust poster sessions would be an advantage to ASBH and the bioethics
community. First, bioethicists tend to dabble and perform research on several
bioethical topics and so it is difficult to run around from breakout session to
breakout session trying to see all of the interesting talks and we are likely
going to miss several of them. With robust poster sessions separate from the
talks, we can go to all of the posters and view all of the research we are
interested in. Second, having more poster presentations will permit ASBH to
accept many more abstracts. While purely speculative, I am quite confident that
if ASBH is rejecting half the abstracts submitted, it does not mean that they
are of such poor quality that they don’t warrant a presentation. As many of my
colleagues have explained, it’s hit or miss, and likely good research is simply
being rejected by the exclusive process explained above. Third, most university
and college departmental policies will not permit the use of institutional
funds for conference travel if the candidate is not presenting. As such, ASBH
in some ways is limiting their attendance. Fourth, and perhaps most
importantly, poster sessions are a great way to mingle and talk about a
research project in depth. It permits us to foster new collaborations with
scholars and is a great way to network for positions and interact with friends.

In short, I think ASBH should seriously consider its
approach to poster sessions and possibly even their peer review process so as
to be more inclusive in accepting abstracts.


Master, Z. 2011. Responsible conduct of bioethics
research. Accountability in Research: Policies and Quality Assurance

Porter, A. L. and Rossini, F. A. 1985. Peer review of
interdisciplinary research proposals. Science, Technology, and Human Values,

Langfeldt, L. and Brofoss, K. E. (2005). Evaluation of
the European Young Investigator Award Scheme. NIFU STEP. Norwegian Institute
for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education.

The Alden March Bioethics Institute offers a Master of Science in Bioethics, a Doctorate of Professional Studies in Bioethics, and Graduate Certificates in Clinical Ethics and Clinical Ethics Consultation. For more information on AMBI’s online graduate programs, please visit our website.  

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