Are posters worth the effort?

Posters are an important tool to communicate your research findings to a larger audience. The format is different from oral presentations or full papers, and special rules for a good poster apply. Posters can be an important step before a full publication, although many posters will never be peer-reviewed and published.

The problem with posters is that they are second class citizens to oral presentations in most meetings. My personal experience with posters, both my own work and posters from others, has been mixed. In some meetings the poster presentation was a relaxed event (including beer and brezels in the last meeting) with good discussions in front of the poster, but often the poster presentation is not much more than a trick to increase conference attendance.

A recent paper (link to english version) in the German journal Deutsches Ärzteblatt systematically interviewed poster authors and attendees at a German meeting. This meeting used the format of a moderated poster presentation. The attendance in the poster presentations was very low, but was valued by younger scientists and by the moderators. One third of the posters had already been presented at another meeting, an issues that touches the problem of duplicate papers that we recently discussed here on Nature Network. In another study, 12% of the posters had already been published as full paper at the time of the meeting.

In my opinion poster presentations are an important part of every scientific meeting. They should be taken seriously by using a competitive peer review process, including the rejection of abstracts that have already been presented or published. And they should be allowed enough space and time in the meeting schedule. Maybe we could also come up with new formats (e.g. this video in poster) that make the poster presentation both fun and scientifically engaging.

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20 Responses to Are posters worth the effort?

  1. Bob O'Hara says:

    That won’t be popular. For a lot of students and post-docs, the only way they can get funding to go to meetings is if they present something. So if a student is going to more than 1 meeting in a summer, it seems a bit much to insist that they present different work.
    I agree that giving space and time is a good idea, as well as beer and chairs!

  2. Graham Steel says:

    Ooh, you don’t half post interesting things Martin.
    I do not have access to the Bozdag Paper but even from the Abstract, this certainly does indeed seem “fun and scientifically engaging”.
    A few months ago, I attended the biggest Conference to date in a particular STM field. As a non scientist, attending something this big was *quite* an eye opener.
    Cue my first experiences of a Poster Session:-
    _”Of the ~ 150 posters, hardly any of the researchers involved were standing next to them as I would have thought would have been the case during poster sessions. You live – you learn.”_
    Post event, all posters were uploaded and archived into a central repository so those who attended have online access. Is this the norm? I don’t know. That said, this does not reach an audience outwith those who’s institutions paid a lot of £££’s. _I am simply a dog on the streets._
    _The dozen or so family members like myself had their registrations costs waived thanks to prior negotiations with the (Conference) organizing committee_.
    Some thoughts just in from a scientist I know well who’s “done the rounds” since 1983.
    a) always bring spare “Blutack”:http://www.blutack.com/ and “Velcro coins”:http://www.velcro.co.uk/cms/VELCRO_R_brand_Easy_Coin.110.0.html?&L=0
    b) The DVD approach. Where would you get your power supply? Would it be practical to leave your kit unmanned for long periods?
    c) On the spot Poster peer review (Conf. Organizers) and discussion/debate with delegates. This won this person the ‘poster of the Conference prize’
    “Nature Precedings”:http://network.nature.com/group/precedings is a perfect “home” (free and broad access) for self archiving posters is it not???
    As Martin says:- _”In my opinion poster presentations are an important part of every scientific meeting. They should be taken seriously by using a competitive peer review process, including the rejection of abstracts that have already been presented or published. And they should be allowed enough space and time in the meeting schedule.”_
    I couldn’t agree more….

  3. Raf Aerts says:

    Another home for posters is the “Online Journal for Scientific Posters”:http://www.eposters.net/ which has a true ISSN (1754-1417) and assigns unique poster ID’s to your submitted posters.

  4. Cath Ennis says:

    I always quite enjoyed poster sessions (I just hated making the buggers in the first place). I was lucky enough to always exhibit at meetings with good incentives (i.e. food and booze, poster competitions) and a very high percentage of poster attendance by authors and other attendees. I found it was an excellent way to get feedback on my work from some quite senior researchers.
    On the other hand I’ve staffed booths at other meetings where no-one presents their posters, no-one comes by, and the whole thing seems like a waste of time.
    On the whole, it’s great for early career scientists as long as you pick the right meetings. Keystone symposia are always good!

  5. Martin Fenner says:

    Most abstract submission guidelines require that the work has not yet been published (at the time of the meeting and not the abstract submission). It is not clear to me whether this also applies to abstracts that have already been published in meeting proceedings. I would guess that the poster author retains the copyright to a poster and has the right to submit the poster to places like Nature Preceedings or Online Journal for Scientific Posters (thanks Raf). But I’ve never looked at the small print.
    Cath, I very much agree with you that there are good and bad meetings for poster sessions. Young investigators (those usually presenting those posters) unfortunately often don’t have this information – unless their supervisor helps them. Maybe we should start a list of good and bad meetings for poster presentations? But even this can be difficult. I had one of the best and one of the worst poster session experiences in the same meeting (“DGHO”:http://www.akm.ch/onkologie-haematologie07/) – only four years apart.

  6. Massimo Pinto says:

    I have also often thought that posters were second best, and that speakers were _primadonna_. Last year though, I went to a conference in San Francisco and got so much precious feedback standing by my poster, that I don’t think I would get as much from a talk. Those who were interested in the poster took their time to address very pertinent questions. May be I was just lucky.
    For this year, I was asked to co-organize a poster session at an Italian meeting to be held in July in Trieste. One thing that was suggested and which I personally dislike, is to make a guided tour of the posters, having divided them by theme first. As I discuss the format with the co-organizers, I wonder whether any of you have your own formula for a successful poster session.
    Some Thoughts:
    * To provide a summary of the posters that pertain to a certain topic before the meeting and post it on the web for delegates to plan their visit beforehand
    * To seek funding to give cash/book prizes to best posters submitted by junior scientists, divided by topic.
    * To leave delegates free to plan their visits
    Ciao
    Massimo

  7. Maxine Clarke says:

    Hilary S is better placed than me to comment on this, but I think that Nature Precedings also allows you to upload your poster, in which case it would have a unique identifier (Handle) and hence a date stamp/priority, as well as tagging, online commenting by readers and so on.

  8. Graham Steel says:

    Absolutely Maxine,
    “Nature Precedings is a place for researchers to share pre-publication research, unpublished manuscripts, presentations, posters, white papers, technical papers, supplementary findings, and other scientific documents.”
    More “under the fold”:http://precedings.nature.com/about

  9. Martin Fenner says:

    Massimo,
    I personally prefer the free format over the guided tour. As a co-organizer I would work hard to have as many people as possible at the poster session: food and drinks, enough time and space, no parallel sessions, and presence of poster author required. I would also think that the quality of the posters will improve by competition: poster prizes and competitive selection of abstracts by peer-review.
    A seminal paper on the art of poster presentations can be found “here”:http://scx.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/28/3/347. And to make sure that as many people as possible visit your poster, read “this”:http://www.cmaj.ca/cgi/content/full/169/12/1291 paper (hint: the strategy involves clothing).

  10. Maxine Clarke says:

    I featured this very good post and idea in “From the Blogosphere”:http://network.nature.com/blogs/user/maxine/2008/03/13/improving-standards-of-posters-13-march-2008 “in _Nature_ this week (13 March issue)”:http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v452/n7184/full/7184xiic.html – somewhat truncated owing to discipline and rigour of print medium;-)
    Let me know via email if you’d like me to mail you a copy of the issue.

  11. Martin Fenner says:

    Update: Bora has written a very nice “blog entry”:http://scienceblogs.com/clock/2008/04/what_makes_a_memorable_poster_2.php of what makes a poster memorable. All this under the “supervision”:http://network.nature.com/blogs/user/henrygee/2008/04/12/bora-goes-wild-in-the-country of Henry in the *Nature Network Cromer Division*.

  12. Henry Gee says:

    Martin, how kind. But Bora, being the clever chap he is, had set that post to upload itself automatically, so that he’d be seen to be blogging even if he were -hung over- -asleep under a golden retriever- otherwise occupied.
    It’s a very interesting post, and perhaps I might add a comment from the perspective of an editor who goes to meetings. The function of an editor at meetings is to -wear women’s clothing- -hang around in bars- network as many interesting people as possible in a very short time, and find out the latest gossip and trends, particularly from up-and-coming researchers of whom one might not have heard.
    To this end poster sessions have the potential to be _at least_ as valuable as platform presentations. Consider – quite a few platform presentations concern material that’s been published already (and of which the news has probably already reached the _Maison Des Girrafes_). And given the time/network nexus mentioned above, platform presentations are often a bit of a risk. There is a chance that one might find oneself in one that’s -unintelligible- -boring- -trivial- on something peripheral to one’s interests: and that’s maybe half an hour of good -drinking- networking time wasted. Gone forever, as irrecoverable as that time spent reading the “collected life, letters and opinions of Lee Strobel”:http://books.google.co.uk/books?as_auth=Lee+Strobel&sa=X&oi=print&ct=title&cad=author-navigational&hl=en.
    The flipside is that posters should be attractive and well-designed, and don’t have print that can only be read by a limbo dancer with a microscope.
    Bora’s tastes are well illustrated in his post (the key term here is _illustrated_). He likes engaging pictures of cuddly animals, and quite right too.
    More seriously, a poster shouldn’t be an entire paper shoveled onto a wall. It should perhaps take one key result and blow it up, with as little text as necessary to explain it. It should be a headline and an attention-grabber. The full methods and explication might be available elsewhere (such as Nature Precedings or the other fine vehicles discussed above) – and, of course, by the researcher him- or herself, who will stand by the poster for the entire time and be willing to give a gripping and spectacular oration on all matters concerning their research, up to and including the release of calcium from intracellular stores. (Well, _someone’s_ got to do it).
    Many years ago when the world was young – yea, even before I joined _Nature_ – I was at a meeting about cladistics at a venue that shall not be named, whose seats were the most uncomfortable of any to have accommodated the capacious Gee posterior (and in which, paradocically, have been the only seats in which the sage Gee anterior has fallen asleep.)
    Now, I _love_ cladistics, but lecture after lecture passed with yet more slides of pectinate combs and unresolved trichotomies which, after a while, started to merge into one. Until one lecturer got up and said that as his actual paper was going to be in the symposium volume anyway, he’d spend his allotted time talking about his research animals. Cue lots of pictures of colourful creatures. It’s the only one of the papers of which I have any memory.

  13. Martin Fenner says:

    Henry, we should convince the powers behind Nature Network that we need a similar feature for our blog posts. But I think they are “working on it”:http://network.nature.com/forums/nnbloggername/1202.
    And -strikethrough- really made it into a lot of NN blog posts recently. Although the original use of this feature in blogs was for marking edits of your original blog entry, I like the new NN meaning. And over on “your side of the network”:http://network.nature.com/blogs/user/henrygee/2008/04/11/elf-and-safety, I see some other creative uses of Textile formatting.
    As far as posters are concerned, I couldn’t agree more. Some people are excellent speakers, and it is always a pleasure to listen to them. But in many competitive research areas you rarely hear something in a talk that hasn’t been published or at least been accepted for publication. And then there is the microformat. In order to have as many oral presentations as possible, conference organizers gave us the 12 minute talk, and that time includes the discussion.
    But posters have a bad reputation. Most senior researchers will be disappointed if their abstract at a meeting is accepted only as a poster and not an oral presentation. Accordingly, conference organizers often give little thought to the poster sessions, and they are treated accordingly. But they are great for informal discussions of unpublished results and an excellent starting point for a collaboration. A poster I found in a meeting last October lead to a visit at that institution last December and to an interesting little project in our department.

  14. Heather Etchevers says:

    POV of a junior PI (me):
    Yes, “disappointment”:http://network.nature.com/blogs/user/boboh/2008/04/13/poster-boy#comment-5207 when the abstract is accepted as a poster. But hey, sometimes there is payback in networking, as others have remarked.
    You’ve hit the key points in my opinion as well:
    # drinks (food optional; herbal tea and coffee work as well as beer or orange juice). Never been to a rich enough conference that serves wine during poster sessions.
    # enough time and space – it has to not be too hot and uncomfortable in the tunnels, in order to talk with the poster presenter
    # no parallel sessions – ideal but difficult to implement; at least, not parallel with oral talks, or perhaps staggered with different poster themes
    # presence of poster author required – but for a short, reasonable period such as an hour or two. Poster presenters often want to see other posters in their own session, and even to talk with other poster presenters! And that period should be made explicit in the abstracts, and the abstracts should be available a week before the conference, ideally.
    My two (euro) cents.
    @Henry: third cent. Let me paraphrase: “A paper shouldn’t be an entire career shoveled onto four print pages and online supplementary tables/figures. It should perhaps take one key result and blow it up, with as little text as necessary to explain it. It should be a headline and an attention-grabber. The full methods and explication might be available elsewhere (such as the journal’s website or any other long-lived vehicle such as one run by NCBI) – and, of course, by the researcher him- or herself, who will remain easy to contact for the rest of their professional career concerning their paper and be willing to give a gripping and spectacular response to all questions concerning their research.”
    Hmm.

  15. Henry Gee says:

    @Heather – you’re _so_ playing my tune.

  16. Martin Fenner says:

    Heather, maybe we can add #5 for those rare cases where you really can’t make it to the poster presentation:
    _If poster author can’t be present at poster, he has to come up with good alternative to hang on poster space._
    This could be something “hilarious”:http://network.nature.com/blogs/user/boboh/2008/04/13/poster-boy or maybe a *self-service poster*? That would be a poster that contains pictures of the lab with contact information, a take-away summary and lots of white space to write comments or suggestions.

  17. Maxine Clarke says:

    Is the NN use os strikeout an example of an evolutionary niche? While we wait for the new platform, we adapt the tools we have?

  18. Maxine Clarke says:

    “use *of* strikeout”, not -os-, sorry. Forgot preview again.

  19. Brian Clegg says:

    Martin – as a writer rather than a real scientist, can I say how fascinating I’ve found this as I always thought posters were things for teenagers to put on their bedroom walls, or people to stick on old buildings to advertise raves. I genuinely had no idea they had a role in real science.
    You lives and learns.

  20. Heather Etchevers says:

    Ooh, I like the idea of a self-service poster.
    Actually, if our proposed “research infrastructure”:http://www.euresearch.ch/index.php?id=195&L=2 gets funded by the European Union, one of the ways of getting the word out to potential users was to make a poster to submit at the same time as any of us would be attending a scientific conference. The concept was very similar to your self-service poster, except I like the idea of a white space with some sort of blog of previous attendances, like a hinged A4 sheet that you can flip up to see the reception at the previous conference… hmm…