An ongoing dialogue on HIV/AIDS, infectious diseases,
March 31st, 2019
The Problem with Research Posters — and a Bold Approach to Fixing Them
When submitting an abstract to a scientific meeting, you can usually expect one of three outcomes.
I’ve listed them below in order of preference, plus the messages the meeting organizers and abstract reviewers are not-so-subtly sending you:
- Oral Presentation: Congratulations! Your abstract has been accepted for an Oral Presentation — in other words, the work sounds so fascinating, so potentially important, we’d love to hear more. You’ll give a 10-minute slide presentation in front of hundreds (maybe thousands) of colleagues on a big stage, backed by a larger than life video feed of your face on our giant LCD screen — so remember to pluck those errant facial hairs beforehand.
- Research Poster: Congratulations, your study has been accepted as a Research Poster! Now, you must generate a single-slide PowerPoint file packed with text, figures, and bullet points, have it professionally printed as a bed-sheet sized poster, and then affix it to a mobile bulletin board during the conference. We’ll give you a designated time to stand by your poster to explain the results. But don’t be alarmed when hundreds of other researchers and their posters line up as well in a vast, industrially lit space. And when we say vast, we’re not kidding — an Airbus A380 might roll by on its way to the runway.
- Rejection: We’re sorry, your study was too weak and/or uninteresting to meet our high standards. We’ll probably tell you that there were many competitive submissions, which is supposed to make you feel better. But you can come to the meeting anyway, providing you pay the registration and housing fees.
While the oral presentation is clearly the winner here, the research poster is undoubtedly the most challenging — and much more numerous, so everyone has to do one sooner or later. Several reasons why posters fill us with dread:
- How do I know what to include on the poster? More isn’t always better, but that lesson is lost on all of us while preparing posters. The default position? More is more. Many of these posters have so much text that they would exceed word-limits on actual submitted manuscripts, if not Victorian novels.
- How to get noticed? This large poster with tiny text is simply hard to read — personally made worse by the fact that I’m at that stage of eye “health” where everything is either too far away or too close. As a result, most meeting participants experience research posters as a blur of information as they walk by. It doesn’t help that further distractions abound in the poster hall, including chance encounters with colleagues, friends, and the occasional giraffe, elephant or other large mammal. I mentioned that the poster halls were vast, didn’t I?
- What’s the best way to convey the information to the (rare) person who stops by and actually wants to discuss your poster further? Here you need a good “elevator pitch,” but I always feel kind of like the weather person on the news show. “And over here [gesturing], we have both the multivariable analysis and the 7-day forecast. Don’t forget your umbrella for Tuesday!”
- What if you get a bad poster location? Did I convey the vastness of these interior spaces with the above reference to the Airbus A380? To the giraffe/elephant? If you’d prefer another reference, I recall a time my poster was positioned in the back corner of a cavernous hall, so far from everything that I’m convinced Lewis and Clark would have skipped this part of the country as too remote or forbidding for habitation. I stood there a long time, just me and my poster, tumbleweeds rolling by … hello? Can anyone hear me?
- What do you do with the poster after the meeting? Many young researchers wonder how to transport the thing after the meeting, which isn’t exactly airline-friendly in shape. After years of experience, I’ve finally figured it out: Unless you have a specific need for the poster already scheduled, say, “Thank you for your service,” Marie Kondo-style, and toss it in the recycling bin. Problem solved!
Not all is lost with research posters, however — it’s still better than a rejection, much better. After all, some of the most important research starts its academic life as a research poster. In our field, the most notable example is the first case of HIV cure after stem cell transplant. Yep — originally “just” a research poster! Maybe it was the sample size (n=1).
Now, how to fix them. The topic is much on my mind since I stumbled across the work of Mike Morrison, a Ph.D. student in psychology.
After I reached out to him, he was kind enough to share this “short version” of why he tackled the problem:
User Experience (UX) Designer quits career and starts a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Goes insane from how horrifically inefficient the user experience of science is. Has serious health scare. Suddenly gets real motivated to fix the problem and speed up science. Starts with the poster.
His brave plan for research posters puts the main message right in the center — and BIG! — with supporting information along the side. I’ve embedded the key figure from his method at the top of this post; he generously shares some templates here.
So if you’re a medical or scientific researcher, do yourself a favor and watch the brilliant and entertaining video. I’ve been thinking about it since seeing it last week, and have already shared it with some collaborators — and now with all of you.
And for your next scientific meeting — will you be brave enough to try it?