Scientific Posters as Scholarly Works
- Posters are scholarly publications that scientists use to communicate findings and discoveries to an audience.
- Communication between a scientist and their audience can be interactive or self-contained.
- Posters allow for brief and efficient communication.
- Poster events are often featured at professional conferences.
- Poster presentations function to foster collaborations, generate interest, educate and prompt further research.
Purpose of Scientific Posters
A scientific poster is an illustrated summary of research and a type of scholarly publication that scientists use to share their findings and discoveries with the public. In contrast to books and journal articles, which provide lengthy and comprehensive examinations of a subject, posters provide an efficient, quick, high-level summary of a research project. Most academic conferences and many professional events host poster sessions as an opportunity for interested parties to succinctly learn about a wide range of research projects and to make professional connections with other scientists. The brief exposure afforded by a poster can serve to improve a scholar’s basic understanding of a field of research, help to identify connections that might otherwise have been obscured by details, or serve as the starting-point for learning more about a subject they might not have otherwise known about. Many productive collaborations have begun with a brief conversation between scientists in front of a poster.
This book will introduce you to the scholarly practice of poster presentations. You may have taken part in science fairs or similar events earlier in your education. A professional poster event is fundamentally similar to those events, but the discourse that takes place at the professional-level is a bit different because professional poster events function primarily to create new collaborations between research groups, critically evaluate experimental results and learn about new techniques and approaches that can be used in future experiments.
Before delving into the details of what scientific posters contain, it is worth describing when, why, and how poster presentations are used by scientists to communicate with others. Posters are an act of communication, and as with any communication, it is important to know your audience, the situation, your goals, and the process by which audience members will read, hear and understand your poster presentation.
It is also important to remember that scientific posters have evolved over many decades and through the experience of millions of individual experiences. The advice contained in this book describes the best practices that have emerged to be standard practice because they consistently produce the most efficient and effective communication. For example, scientific posters contain several distinct parts, which appear in order and include: Title, Abstract, Introduction, Materials & Methods, Results, Discussion and References. This standard mode of organization helps ensure effective communication between presenter and audience not only because it has been found to work, but because audiences have learned to expect it. Adhering to the standards described in this book will make it easier for your audience to understand your poster because they will know where to look to find the information they need.
Understand your Audience
Scientific posters must provide audiences with a clear, accurate understanding of scientifically valid findings. They serve to provide an efficient and succinct form of communication. But their brevity must not come at the cost of misrepresentation, whether in the form of meaningful omission, exaggeration, or other distortion. A person who reads a scientific poster should come away with the same essential understanding they would have if they had read an essay-length account of the same research, with the only difference being a quantitative difference of detail. Other goals that posters often serve include prompting further questions, creating professional connections and generating interest.
Scientific posters are primarily directed to peers or colleagues, people who have equivalent training as yourself but who may know less about the specific subject you are addressing. However, posters are also often used to communicate research findings to non-experts, members of the general public who are interested in the subject but may lack the training or experience required to assess the research in its full depth. Which audience your poster should address will depend on the venue where your poster will be presented.
Above all, you should think of your audience as someone like yourself in this sense: as a critical consumer of information, you should constantly subject any claim you encounter to a rigorous
process of examination before allowing it to become part of your memory. Once you commit something to memory, it is exceedingly difficult to excise it, so it is crucial that you pay close attention to what you allow in, especially when the person offering that information seems trustworthy and authoritative. Thus, you should design your poster to provide audiences not only with the information you want them to remember, but also all the details they need in order to assess the validity and reliability of that information.
Communicating your Research
People encounter scientific posters two main ways: stand-alone viewings and interactive presentations. A given poster may be presented in multiple situations, so it is important to design posters that audiences can make sense of without further guidance and that can also serve as a useful tool for illustrating speech.
Stand-Alone Posters – Often posters are made available to audiences without their authors being present. Sometimes a poster gallery is left standing throughout the length of a conference, so that attendees can peruse them at their convenience. Increasingly, digital versions of posters are made available through the internet, so that audiences may encounter them months after their original creation.
Interactive Poster Presentations – In interactive situations, one (or more) of a poster’s authors stands next to the poster and guides the audience through the process of understanding the research the poster presents. Normally, a poster presenter is prepared to present a brief summary (e.g., 5 minutes) of the poster’s contents, refined to make its findings as clear as possible. They are also ready to answer any questions an audience member might have about the research contained in the poster. Sometimes poster presentations are made in a formal organized event. Poster events are lively, loud and energetic. Attendees will walk around the event (e.g., inside a convention center) and talk with presenters whose posters they find interesting or relevant to their own work. Poster events will typically last a few hours so that attendees have enough time to visit and interact with many posters and poster presenters. This is a good time for scientists to learn from one another and start new research collaborations that could one day lead to new discoveries.
Designing Posters for a Diverse Audience – Because posters have traditionally been presented as part of in-person events, they should be designed with an audience in mind. Thus, they should be easy for a person to read and comprehend in the midst of a crowded environment and from a few feet away (e.g., 3-5 feet distance). This means that the most important elements should be printed in large, clear type, and even the secondary elements should be legible from the same distance. The size of figures and tables should be large enough to read from several feet away. The content of the poster should also make sense as quickly as possible, thus your writing and images should be as simple to comprehend as possible. In some situations, such as online galleries, audiences may be able to zoom in or spend lots of time reading a poster, but that should be a secondary consideration. It is necessary that your poster be clear to a rushed audience at a distance as well as provide considerable information for audiences who can pay closer attention.
While a poster accelerates the time it takes to communicate research with an audience, their reception of your poster nevertheless unfolds over time. A scientific poster is organized in sections so that its Title appears first, followed by Abstract, Introduction, Materials & Methods, Results, Discussion and References appears last. However, audiences rarely read posters in the order that they appear on the poster. Audiences see some elements of the poster before others, and the order in which they “read” your poster will determine what they take away from your poster presentation. Further, not every audience member will go through the full process of viewing your poster, so it is worth anticipating the points at which people might find most important or the point at which they quit reading. This way you can help ensure that each audience member will, at the very least, walk away from your poster understanding the most significant findings of your research.
In general, the ordered process that an audience member will likely use to view a scientific poster will go something like this:
1. Title, Author & Institutions – An audience’s first impression of your poster will be very quick (i.e., 5-30 seconds) and focus on your title and who did the research. It is very important that the content of your poster grab their attention and that your poster looks professional. This brief interaction will determine if the audience reads your poster further or if they move on to another poster. Questions that they will consider:
Is this poster worth the time it will take me to process in full? Do I want to stop and talk to the person who is presenting this poster? What is this poster likely to tell me? Do I care about this subject? Is this poster likely to tell me something I do not know? Can I learn something new that I can apply to my own research?
2. Abstract – If your poster passes these first few questions, the audience will proceed to reading the poster’s abstract, so as to confirm or dispel their belief that this poster will be worth their time. They will spend 1-4 minutes reading the abstract.
Did I read that title correctly? What questions did they ask? How did they try to answer those questions? What did they find? Does that seem plausible?
If all goes well, and the abstract piques further interest, they will then delve into the other parts of the poster with questions like:
How did they come to their conclusion? How did they conduct their research? Where might they have gone wrong? Did they frame their research correctly? What did they really find? What information from this poster is safe to transfer into my long-term memory?
3. Figures and Tables – Most audience members will skip ahead to the raw data (or its closest approximation). They will look at your figures, graphs, maps, tables, images, diagrams in order to gauge the reliability of the data from which you are deriving the information you would like them to leave with. An experienced researcher will extrapolate from what they know about the practices and limits of research to make a preliminary decision about whether it is plausible that your research is based on acceptable data. Misrepresentations in this part of your poster (e.g., non-proportional graphs, emotionally manipulative pictures, poorly planned experiments) will only serve to lose your audience at this point.
4. Introduction and Discussion – Once they have generated a basic understanding of your research, audiences will generally turn to the detailed text of your poster both to test their understanding and to assess your methods in more detail.
Did I understand the framing and goals of this research correctly? What exactly were they trying to prove? Were there limitations of scope or focus that might alter my understanding of the meaning or importance of this research? And what did they find? Does this detailed account align with what they wrote in the abstract or did they leave important parts out? Where might this go next? Is this research that I could contribute to? Is this something or someone I should keep paying attention to because they are planning to do future research that might answer questions I care about? Could I collaborate with this person?
5. Materials & Methods and Results – If everything else makes sense, audiences will delve into the details of how you conducted experiments, obtained data and how you interpreted it. By this point, they are invested in your work and will want to know more. Scientists are inherently critical and they will be looking intently at your work for reasons to dispute your findings, methods and experiments.
6. References and Acknowledgements – If they are particularly interested in your research, audiences will sometimes read your references and acknowledgements. This is usually because they are doing similar work, and they want to benefit by following in your footsteps or even collaborating with you in future research. If they get this far, congratulations you made a lasting and impactful impression with your poster.
Most poster events consist of numerous individual poster presentations (e.g., professional conferences typically have hundreds of posters displayed simultaneously). Due to the large volume of people and time constraints at such events, most presenter-audience interactions will not get as far as a poster’s list of references and acknowledgements. However, this does not mean that your presentation was ineffective. While you may never know the full impact of your poster on an audience, your poster still serves a very important role within the scientific community, which is to inform, educate and disseminate scholarly findings, discoveries and results to the public.