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Abstract ideas.

Online abstract management systems don't have to be such a tar-out concept for small-budget associations. Times have changed--and so have the prices and options.

Is THE IDEA OF TAKING ON AN ONLINE abstract management system too obtuse to consider? Think again. It may be just the thing to round out your associations Web capabilities--and it's now within reach. The abstract management systems that the larger scientific and professional associations have been enjoying for years can now be implemented by even the most budget-conscious association with a bit of planning and foresight.

The simple addition of an online abstract submission system offers a number of benefits, including increased efficiency in the abstract submission and scheduling process, reduced staff time, lower costs, improved member service as a result of the ability to almost instantaneously communicate with those submitting proposals, and the added ability for members in different countries to have the same time frame to submit their proposals as domestic members. The data collection can also be used in other ways such as an online abstract database and preparation of a fully searchable CD-ROM containing the abstracts. (See sidebar, "Getting Ahead by Going Online.")

And although online abstract management systems are no longer the new kid on the tech block, for some small- and medium-sized associations, the idea of converting to such a system may still seem daunting despite the laundry list of attractive benefits. But taking the plunge doesn't mean that you have to buy a prepackaged system or hire a full-time webmaster on your staff to oversee an in-house, customized system. Another option exists: Hire a Web development company to program a system specifically for you, and have that company install it on your server or host it for you. You own the system, so no ongoing charges incur except for updates that you want made to the system (this compares to a prepackaged system that may have ongoing charges based on the number of abstracts submitted). Still can't believe it can be done at a small association? It became reality last year for the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action (ARNOVA), Indianapolis, which has a $650,000 annual budget an d a four-person staff.

Debunking some of the myths that still exist about these online systems, as well as providing suggestions for implementing and designing your very own online abstract management system, may help quell any remaining concerns for those who are still on the fence.

Online management system myths

Myth: We can't afford to have a system designed or afford to buy a prepackaged system. Many of your members probably belong to other associations that use such a system. Members are becoming more sophisticated and may now expect online abstract submission. From a purely financial perspective, it may be true that you cannot afford the direct costs of such a system. But if you add up the number of staff hours spent on this abstract submission, review, and scheduling, you may be shocked to find that the other work in the office comes to a grinding halt. You may even have to hire extra staff during this time, and the process of notifying presenters may be so cumbersome and take so long that you will eventually lose members or conference presenters. If your association has a 501(c)(3) designation, you may be able to obtain grant funds for what funders define as a "capacity-building" initiative. Also, you might consider a fund drive among your own members to institute this. In the long run, the system will save sta ff time, and if done correctly, it will greatly improve member services.

Myth: If we design our own system, we will have to hire a webmaster on the association staff. That is not necessarily so if you can find a Web development company to design the system and then host it on their server. This company will handle maintenance, and the ongoing costs should be low. There should be no recurring yearly costs based on the number of submissions. Prepackaged online abstract systems that need only minimum customization and have low ongoing usage costs may work for your association. However, carefully check out the ongoing costs to determine if this is the best option for you.

Myth: Our members won't use such a system. If your members are totally averse to technology, then perhaps this is true. However, since scientific and professional conferences are the only ones with massive numbers of papers and presentations, it is very likely that this group of people is more technologically savvy than trade association members. It is also likely that your members are already using this type of system with another association. Don't sell your members short in this regard.

Myth: The system will not be user friendly, and members will view this as impersonal. Obviously such a system has the potential for not being user friendly. Keep in mind, it is only as user unfriendly as you make it. You are the one who controls the directions placed on the site and the technical support provided from the office. If staff doesn't answer questions or refuses to help a person using the system or if your directions on the site are vague, then your system won't be user friendly. But if you think of this system as a membership benefit and design it with that in mind, then it can be very user friendly, and members will view it as an improvement in membership services.

Myth: The online system will eliminate the need for staff and will cut all costs associated with the abstract submission process. It is true that the number of person hours needed for the system will be reduced (except during its first year of inception), but you will still need staff to oversee the process and provide technical support to members. You will cut postage and printing costs for mailing acceptances, rejections, and confirmations. You will save time entering abstract data into an online abstract database. But if you take the abstracts direct from the system and produce a CD-ROM, don't be surprised if your costs are higher. For example, at ARNOVA, we previously produced a printed abstract book. After initial submissions had been reviewed, those participating in the conference were asked to submit a one-page, camera-ready abstract. The page limit helped to cut printing costs. Not all individuals submitted this one-page abstract, and their submissions were left out of the book. When we instituted the online system, we took the two-to-three-page abstract directly from the system (submitters did make some changes to these) and put them on CD-ROM. Thus, our first CD-ROM had 467 abstracts, and the cost was about 20 percent higher than the printed book. However, for that slightly increased price, members received a product that contained twice the abstracts as it had previously, with more detail and with full search capabilities. Note that there also will be costs if you decide to alter the structure of the conference at some future time.

Myth: Using an online abstract management system will result in a paperless office. Instituting this system didn't necessarily end all paper in the office. Because sometimes the Internet is not accessible, we decided to have a paper back-up system in the office. We kept copies of each abstract, correspondence related to that abstract, and confirmation forms in a file. Each file and piece of related material bore the number originally assigned to it. While it didn't eliminate all paper, this development allowed for a better, more organized system to manage paper within the office.

Choosing an online abstract management system

If you are contemplating instituting an online abstract management system, consider these suggestions to help in the process:

1. Before submitting a bid, ask yourself what systems within your organization need to be changed. Although the manual system may be time consuming, it still has to work well before you can implement an electronic one. For example, at ARNOVA, our paper system did not work very well. Our numbering system did not work, and we were constantly having problems locating papers submitted by authors. We did not properly keep track of multiple authors on a paper. We had to develop a new numbering system and a way to track papers and authors via our database before we could even begin to think about such a system. Make sure that your in-house database functions properly and collects the information you want before you develop an online abstract management system.

2. Make sure you know what your organization needs from such a system. Outline everything you want the system to do before you obtain bids from vendors. This means carefully retracing the abstract submission and acceptance process. For example, if you need certain information (such as e-mail addresses), make sure these are required fields for the submitter, and make sure the person cannot proceed in the submission process until the required data are entered in the field. Be sure to involve all staff who have even a minor role in this system, and then listen carefully to their opinions and suggestions.

At ARNOVA, we determined that we needed three segments of the online abstract system:

* the proposal submission segment for the submitters to use;

* an administrative area for the staff; and

* a review area for the conference chair, staff, and assigned reviewers. The proposal submission segment needed to include

* a direct link from our associations Web site home page for quick access;

* easy-to-follow and complete directions for the overall process and for each page;

* required entry fields for information such as authors' names and email addresses;

* the ability to enter information on multiple authors and indicate whether author is first, second, third, and so forth;

* a direct link to the database so that members did not have to re-enter membership information and that allowed the member to indicate that the information is new and information in our database needs to be changed;

* the ability to automatically assign a proposal number based upon the system we had set up to distinguish among panels, posters, and papers.

* automatic e-mail confirmation capability: A submitter would automatically receive an e-mail confirmation after beginning a submission. This would include a user name and password to be used to re-enter the system and continue with this particular abstract. It also included the automatically assigned proposal number;

* the ability of the submitter to choose a subject category that most closely matched the submission;

* the ability of submitter to indicate his or her interest in being a chair or discussant;

* options for the submitter such as the ability to leave the submission process and return to the page to finish it later, the option to perform a "final submit," and the option to withdraw a paper after a "final submit"; and

* a final "thank you" page with information on how to check on the review process.

All the data had to be downloadable to our membership database and online, fully searchable abstract database, as well as easily formatted so that it could be placed on a CD-ROM.

The administration area needed to include

* a quick way for staff to access all submissions and perform tasks such as printing the abstracts or a list of the abstracts, and entering changes to the abstracts as necessary; and

* the ability to produce a variety of reports such as number of submissions by category to date, a list of papers by category, a list of papers by author, and a list of incomplete proposals to date.

The review area also needed to be user friendly for the staff, the reviewers, and the chair. The staff needed to be able to easily assign reviewers to the various abstracts, e-mail the link to them, and provide assistance. For the reviewers, the ability to access the proposals, review the proposals blindly, print them out if desired, enter their comments and ratings, and indicate which comments the submitter could view (to improve the submission) was key. And for the chair to view the ratings and reviewers' comments, override them as desired, and enter additional comments, the system had to be relatively painless as well.

During this process, you may find that some steps are superfluous or time consuming and therefore can be eliminated, like ARNOVA's nixing of the one-page abstract requirement. Many of the members thought this was just more "busy work." Hence, we only received half of the one-page abstracts for our abstract book. Dropping that requirement has allowed us to put out a better product.

You may also find that you can meet your needs and still save costs by not having all the services online. At ARNOVA, we decided to forego an online scheduling system. Instead, we had a scheduling system designed that we used in conjunction with our database. Since all the information was downloadable, this worked as well as an online scheduling system, yet was much less expensive.

Once you have done this needs analysis (and not before), you are ready to approach vendors.

3. Obtain bids from several vendors and compare your options. Options include prepackaged systems, a custom-designed system that your association supports with an in-house webmaster, and a custom-designed system that you own but an outside vendor supports. Remember, if you are looking at a prepackaged system, find out all the costs involved. Unlike with a custom-designed system that you own, a prepackaged system involves recurring charges each year usually based on the number of abstracts submitted and the services requested. Usually, there is a cost for each submission. If you have a conference with hundreds, if not thousands, of papers, then this could become quite costly. Remember, not everything that you want from the system needs to necessarily be online. Use of some items, like ARNOVA's database to do scheduling, was actually much easier and less expensive, and still met our needs.

Obtain bids from Web development companies that might be able to design a system specifically for you. The cost of doing this might actually be much less than using a prepackaged system, especially in the long term, and it may better meet your needs, as virtually any functionality can be added. However, make sure that your specifications are complete and clearly detailed before requesting a quote and proceeding with the project--it will be far more cost effective to include all functionality at the beginning of the process rather than making later changes. (See sidebar, "Look Before You Leap," for what to look for in a Web development company.)

When considering an in-house webmaster, be sure to include his or her salary, benefits, equipment, training, and overhead when comparing costs to the outsourced options. Determine whether the webmaster has the programming skills to accomplish a project of this magnitude, which requires significant expertise in both programming and relational database development. Moreover, consider whether the webmaster is likely to stay on staff long term--these same skills make the webmaster an attractive employee for other associations and companies. Ask yourself whether a transition will be difficult, and ensure that the webmaster documents the programming code thoroughly.

4. Remember that you are obtaining a system for a long period of time. Therefore, you need to consider a number of issues. When dealing with vendors who offer prepackaged systems, make sure you Find out the exact amount of recurring charges each year, and Find out what it costs for corrections to papers (some systems charge for corrections or changes to the original abstract). The worst possible scenario would be to have a system installed for one or two years and then Find out that you could not afford it the next year. Since these types of systems are proprietary, if you approached another vendor, you might incur start-up costs all over. Also, Find out if there are mandatory upgrades that will have to be purchased and whether the vendor will stop supporting older versions of the system if you choose not to upgrade.

Be sure to Find out how long the vendor has been in the business, especially with proprietary systems that you don't own. If the vendor goes out of business, you need to Find out what will happen to your system. Once you invest that much time and money in Finding a vendor, make sure that you will not incur the same expenses in just a few short years to customize a system with a different vendor. Also, in this case, do you own the system if they do go out of business?

5. Have a scheduling system to support the online system, and make sure data can easily be downloaded to that system. Can the data be easily downloaded into your membership database? You don't necessarily need an online scheduling system, but to notify presenters of their presentation times, you do need an automated system. That can be handled from a scheduling system that is either customized or prepackaged. Our decision to forego the online system in favor of our customized scheduling system (which was still designed in conjunction with the online system) saved us thousands of dollars. And we still accomplished what we wanted--a method of immediately notifying individuals of acceptance or rejection of papers and a method of notifying them of presentation times. Once all scheduling was completed, we posted a searchable schedule on the Web site.

6. Make sure you allow ample time to test the system. Testing the system in the middle of the abstract submission process is not acceptable. If you do that, you are doomed to failure. There may be refinements suggested during this phase, but this is not the time to test the system. We began by using a free abstract submission system in 2001. The system did not meet our needs, but it worked for submission of single papers (not panels). This trial period allowed us to gauge whether our members would adopt such a system. Ultimately, about half of those submitting papers in 2001 used the system, despite the fact that we didn't promote it very heavily.

Both the benefits and the flaws that we learned from that system helped us design the new system we implemented in 2002. We began to plan the new system four to five months before it was to be operational to allow for testing. We also had individuals not familiar with ARNOVA, as well as those not technologically savvy, test the system. Their comments were invaluable in ensuring that the directions on the system were understandable and that glitches did not exist in the system.

Make sure to involve the reviewers early in the process. We asked reviewers who had used the free abstract system for comments about the system, which we used to help design and develop the new online review system. Our system allowed us to have blind reviews, and we were able to allow the submitter to view select comments. These comments could be useful to the submitter in completing his or her paper.

7. Make sure that the system is user friendly. To make sure the system worked for our members, we were available in the office to work with them if they couldn't figure it out. We tested and retested the instructions to ensure that everyone could understand them. Having clear instructions (and ones they can print out) is an essential part of making this a relatively easy operation for the user. To further simplify the process, we tied the system to our database, so a member could enter his or her name and not have to enter the other data, which saved time on each person's part. Once they entered their names, the rest of their membership information "popped" onto the screen. All this contributed to the success of our system.

8. Remember, little things count when designing your system. Make sure the link to the system is highly visible on your association's home page, and be sure to include a staff person's e-mail and telephone number on the instruction page and an automatic e-mail link for concerns or problems. Consider making the cut-off time for the system in Pacific Standard Time. Last year, we made the cut-off time midnight Eastern Standard Time and our West Coast members felt like they were cheated out of three hours. Also, make sure that you can access all assigned passwords easily. Some of your members will lose them, and you will need to be able to access them quickly. Be sure that your system does not have a short "time out." Initially, our system would close out an inactive session after 30 minutes for security reasons, and all the information would be lost. We discovered that our submitters needed a 60-minute window to enter some panels.

9. Make sure that your system is actually an improvement over the paper system you had before, and then let members know that it is. At ARNOVA, the review process was cumbersome. Abstracts were divided up manually, photocopied, and then sent to reviewers. Invariably, some reviewers did not receive the review copies, and another batch had to be mailed to them. The review process usually was lengthier than anticipated. Once decisions were made, staff sent out acceptances and rejections. These never reached presenters in a timely fashion (particularly those from overseas). The office also had trouble tracking second, third, and fourth authors on papers. The online review system allowed submitters to constantly revise their abstracts until they decided to submit them for the final time. Reviews were truly blind. Those submitting papers were quickly notified of their acceptance or rejection via e-mail, and we were able to schedule the papers with more ease. All abstracts were easily transferred to a fully searchab le CD-ROM, which proved to be a useful research tool for members.

10. Be ready to refine the system after installation. No matter how much testing you do, you will always find ways to improve the system the following year. Make sure you collect all comments about the system as you go along by surveying attendees at your conference and asking them specific questions about the system. Using these comments, we came back to ARNOVA and tweaked the existing system to make it even more user friendly for our members.

The decision to install an online abstract management system is a major one, especially for small- and medium-sized associations. Although the needs of each association differ, it is hoped that by following some of the above steps, the association will be assured of an abstract system that meets their needs, saves the organization money, and works for years to come without additional expense. The online submission of abstracts is rapidly becoming the norm. If you think you can't afford such a system, you may find that you can't afford not to have one.


Associations that have launched their own online abstract management system have been able to take a giant step forward in the streamlining of operations as a result of the many inherent advantages such a system offers:

* Reduces the amount of time office staff spend on the abstract submission and review process.

* Is convenient for members--they can submit at the last minute and be assured that abstract arrived safely in office.

* Provides immediate notification to those submitting that their abstract has been received.

* Sends out acceptance or rejection e-mails immediately after review decisions are made, which means everyone receives them at the same time land international members are not penalized).

* Makes scheduling much easier.

* Organizes the data on first, second, third, etc., authors.

* Allows abstracts to be downloaded for use on a fully searchable CD-ROM and/or a fully searchable database. No one will have to re-enter the abstracts, which saves staff time and costs.

* Allows for reviews that can be blind if desired.

* Allows for submitter to see selected comments regarding review. These comments can help the presenter enhance his or her presentation.

* Allows the member to easily update his or her membership record.

* Saves printing, postage, and staff costs.

* You control the process; the process does not control you.


Choosing a Web development company to develop a customized system or choosing a vendor to supply a prepackaged system is a tough decision, and one not to be taken lightly. Asking the right questions up front can save you from a possible headache. Here are some tips to keep in mind when evaluating potential partners:

* Does the vendor who provides a prepackaged system meet all your needs? If the vendor's system requires little customization and the ongoing costs are minimal, then look seriously at their systems. However, make sure you check out a number of items mentioned below before proceeding with a prepackaged system.

* Would a Web development company provide a system customized for you that would be less expensive than prepackaged systems, would have little or no ongoing costs, and would provide exactly what you need? If so, it would be worthwhile to explore that option, too.

* When considering Web development companies, ask who on the staff will be doing the programming. What experience do they have? Will they be working on your system until completion? What programming language will they use? Is it proprietary, or can it be easily moved to another organization's server? Where will the system be hosted? Is the server and Internet bandwidth sufficient to handle the pre-deadline surge?

* How long has the vendor been in business? The longer in business, the better chance that the vendor will be around in several years. But remember, this type of technology is relatively new, so 10 years is long.

* If the vendor goes out of business, who owns the system? Do you own the source code so any one can make changes to the program? Get ownership in writing.

* Compare apples to apples. Make sure that each requirement is quoted separately, and make sure each vendor quotes each requirement.

* If this is a prepackaged system, will the vendor customize the system to your needs, or will you have to change what you are doing to meet the vendor's capabilities?

* What are the ongoing costs for the system? Is it strictly on a per-abstract basis? Are other services extra? How much will the vendor charge after the system is designed? Will you have to purchase mandatory upgrades, and if you don't purchase them, will you find that there is no technical support for the older version?

* Will the vendor support your system after it is designed?

* Will the vendor answer technical questions from members? calls aren't returned, then how quickly will the company respond to your needs once the system is under construction?

* Make sure you check references. Don't just check references of associations that have installed the system and have used it for only one year. You are looking for long-term support and commitment to the system, so check with associations that have used the system for several years. Also, check references of associations similar to your own size. They will be more cognizant about staying within budget.

* Make sure you have the vendor give you an implementation timeline and make sure there is ample time to test and re-test before you go live.

* Check out various product demonstrations and make sure all involved staff check out these demonstrations. Also, involve volunteers (such as reviewers) in this process.

* Ask what training the vendor offers for their prepackaged system.

Beyond keeping these questions and ideas in mind throughout the vendor evaluation process, try tapping these informational resources available online to aid in your decision:

* View ARNOVA's abstract management system at

* "Processing Abstract Submissions Online," Robert Eltzhotz, ASSOCIATION MANAGEMENT, October 2000.

* "Online Abstract Submission and Review: Considerations for Selecting an Abstract Management Company," Kathleen McQuilkin, Dana Giddens, and Michele Fetsko Liston, ASAE M&T Conference, 2002. Paper now available on

* The Web site contains information about choosing an abstract management system, establishing a timeline, negotiating a contract, and using a checklist to evaluate available abstract management systems.

* A simple search in an online search engine of "online abstract management systems" yields more than 2,000 entries.

Katherine Mandusic Finley, CAE, is the executive director and Anne Boley is program director at the Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action, Indianapolis. David E. Stevens is principal, Stevens & Stevens, LLC, Indianapolis. E-mails:,, and
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Title Annotation:online abstract management systems
Author:Stevens, David E.
Publication:Association Management
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2003
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