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Scientific posters — Should they really be less ‘prestigious’?

Autor: Una Pale

Since the 1980s, posters have become increasingly used as a mode of presentation at scientific conferences. Today, at many conferences, posters are, indeed, a format through which the majority of attendees present their work. However, many of us still consider posters as a less interesting format, while presentations are seen as more ‘prestigious’. I’m not talking about conferences where posters are not presenting peer-reviewed work, but fields of science where the format is one of the ways to present accepted papers that have been peer-reviewed and accepted for publication post-conference. Often conferences are so big that there is no time for everyone to present in oral sessions, and thus poster sessions are an obvious alternative.

However, despite no difference in reviewing the conference papers nor later publishing, many authors still feel like their work is less worthwhile if it is chosen for presentation in the form of a paper. Why would that be so? In reality, posters have many advantages over tightly scheduled presentations:


    • They allow for more time to present your work, going into more details and giving more time for questions.

    • Presenting posters can be more targeted to individuals interested in your work, bring discussions, and find common interests.

    • Preparing and presenting posters is often less stressful, thus also allowing a better connection with listeners.

    • Posters allow you to learn and connect better with interested colleagues and build contacts immediately.

    • Depending on the field, a poster can get more audience than oral presentations. For example, at big conferences with tens of sessions happening in parallel and poster sessions too, oral presentations barely get 20 visitors, while during posters, hundreds of people are circling around, and it is up to you to attract them to your work.

Mentioned ‘lower’ importance of posters could be, however, explained by several things, some coming from individual researchers, some from senior colleagues, and some from the conference organizers:


    • Usually, less effort is spent in preparing posters, and often less feedback is received by senior researchers. It could be exactly due to the perceived ‘lower’ importance, which makes it harder to get out of the vicious circle.

    • Thus, posters quality is also often lower, failing to attract deserved attention and also limiting knowledge transfer.

    • Poster sessions are usually crowded with endless rows of posters, making it hard to select the ones relevant to our personal research and interests. There is rarely time to read them all, much less speak to individual authors.

Further, it is also important to distinguish between two types of posters that we often want to put in one:


    • 1. Poster that is self-sustained and can be read without the presence of the author. They usually require more detailed information, meaning more text, and figures, and being adapted to a broader range of the public.

    • 2. Posters that are supporting material for a presentation done in person by the author. In this case, more important are illustrations and figures that the author can use to pass the message, while all details about the presented research are not necessary on the poster.

I struggle a lot with these two perspectives, as ideally, I would like to have a visually attractive poster with less text but also to be able to reuse the same poster and hang it in the lab or corridor at the university. However, in this case, satisfying both purposes is not easy. Creating a poster that motivates research, brings details about setup, results, and conclusions, and is visually attractive is quite a challenging task.


Figure 2. Original #betterposter design proposal by Mike Morrison

Recently, Mike Morrison, a psychology PhD student, proposed #betterposter design for posters to make poster sessions more efficient. In his opinion, the ‘cardinal sin’ of posters is that they often require somebody to read them for 10 minutes straight in a time-pressured environment. Several novel ideas that he proposed are:


    • Core message of the poster should be written clearly in one sentence that can be read while walking down the poster line. However, in traditional poster designs, this is commonly lost in the conclusions and easily missed. The # betterPoster’s biggest design change is to place your key message right in the middle of your poster (position and size could be discussed, though), in a huge font, and in plain language. This serves as a fast way to attract potential listeners (or readers) to the poster. Important is that the main message is not often the same as a title. You can dare to be bold with the main message (more than you can with the title)!

    • Posters should maximize the amount of insight for people attending a poster session. Thus, detailed information should still be present, but not as the core of the poster. Thus, usually, it can be put more on the sides or at the bottom, using bullet points instead of sentences.

    • Finally, to provide more information and an easy way to contact you, utilize QR codes. QR code to paper (or preprint if not yet published), to any code library or email address, can all be added! This way, somebody that’s interested in further reading can quickly snap a picture with their phone and look at it later!

An example of Mike’s original design is shown in Figure 2. However, Mike’s proposal is just there for inspiration, and it can be tweaked according to needs and individual preferences. For example, my preference is to still lower the amount of space taken by the core message and rather utilize it for more concrete information for readers (when I’m not there to present the poster). Similar adjustment ideas had others, as can be seen in other examples shown in Figure 3.

To read more about the #betterposter idea and access various materials check here.


Figure 3. Examples of posters building on top of #betterposter design and adjusting to personal preferences

I have utilized this approach for the last couple of conference posters, and I have to admit it is still a process of learning and improving.

Let me tell you about the last experiment that I did: I created a poster before the conference, but then while presenting it several times, I realized that some parts of the poster I didn’t really use much and some I wished, were better structured. Then I decided to create a new version of the poster based on this post-conference experience. And here is a result (Figure 4): different organization and flow, a bit less text, and more pictures. This experience taught me that:


    • When making a poster, it is not about putting as much information from the paper to the poster. It is about putting information that will interest people to read the paper later.

    • Flow and organization don’t have to follow paper structure at all! They have to follow a structure of importance because when you present, or people read, you want them to read first to the most relevant parts.

    • The main guideline for structure and flow should be how I want to present work to someone who has maybe only a few minutes to stop by my poster. And what supporting pictures and graphs are needed should be helpful for this ‘short’ presentation, avoiding situations where the first thing I want to show them is 3rd graph out of 5, which is somewhere at the bottom.

    • When designing a poster, imagine people approaching, start interacting with them, and ultimately present a 1- to 2-minute pitch. This will make clear what is missing on the poster and what might be too many details.

    • Finally, the poster might require a complete redoing of figures and illustrations to make them more clear, better fit the design space, and be visually more attractive. But this also means that preparing a poster might take a couple of days.

I’m still not completely happy with the last version of the poster, and it might take weeks to come up with the best visualization that could be used to attract attention, and this is why we should not be leaving creating posters for last minute before the conference.


Figure 4.Experiment of adapting poster from conference (left) after experience of presenting it (right)

Finally, the position of a poster as a science communication format is still an active topic, despite not much research being done on increasing the interest and effectiveness of posters. The position of posters is highly field-specific, where in some fields, works presented through posters are not even peer-review or published, while in others (like computer science), some people are in favor of abolishing oral presentations in conferences altogether (except for plenary talks) and do only poster sessions. There are many ways technologies can help improve posters, one of them being using QR codes, creating prerecorded presentation and making them available through links or QR codes on the paper, or simply creating tools for easier poster designs. Still, for posters to stop being somehow inferior to oral presentations, their advantages need to be promoted by researchers and conference organizers.

We have designed a small study with the goal of gathering feedback from researches on their experience and viewpoints both on posters itself, but also poster sessions organized on conferences. Idea is to understand better, but then also hopefully propose concrete ideas on how to support researchers and improve poster sessions as knowledge exchange and networking opportunity. Please fill it out and spread it with colleagues 😊 Thank you!


Figure 5. Demonstration of transformation of typical scientific poster to eye-catching networking tool (taken from https://fourwaves.com/blog/how-to-make-a-scientific-poster/)

Finally, for the ones looking for good materials on creating posters here are several interesting websites with many recommendations and guidelines on how to transform typical poster to a visual eye-catching poster (see Figure 5). They also provide lots of useful templates:


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