Better posters are nice, but we need better poster session experiences

Fear and loathing in the conference centre lobby

Let me start from a negative place, because my attitude to poster sessions is negative. Poster sessions are neither good ways to communicate science, nor to network at conferences. Moreover, they are unpleasant.

The experience of going to a poster session, as an attendant or a presenter goes something like this: You have to stand in a crowded room that is too loud and try to either read technical language or hold a conversation in about a difficult topic. Even without anxiety, mobility, or hearing difficulties, a poster session is unlikely to be enjoyable or efficient.

Poster sessions are bad because of necessities of conference organisation. We want to invite many people, but we can’t fit in many talks; we get crowded poster sessions.

They are made worse by efforts to make them better, such as mandating presenters to stand by their posters, in some cases on pain of some sanction by the organisers, or to have the poster presenters act as dispensers of alcohol. If you need to threaten or drug people to participate in an activity, that might be a sign.

They are made not worse but a bit silly, by assertions that poster sessions are of utmost importance for conferencing. Merely stating that the poster session is vibrant and inspiring, or that you want to emphasise the poster as an important form of communication, sadly, does not make it so, if the poster sessions are still business as usual.

Mike Morrison’s ”Better Scientific Poster” design

As you can see above, my diagnosis of the poster session problem is part that you’re forced to read walls of text or listen to mini-lectures, and part that it happens in an overcrowded space. The walls of text and mini-lecture might be improved by poster design.

Enter the Better Scientific Poster. I suggest clicking on that link and looking at the poster templates directly. I waited too long to look at the actual template files, because I expected a bunch of confusing designer stuff. It’s not. They contain their own documentation and examples.

There is also a video on YouTube expanding on the thinking behind the design, but I think this conversation on the Everyting Hertz podcast is the best introduction, if you need an introduction beyond the template. The YouTube video doesn’t go into enough detail, and is also a bit outdated. The poster template has gone through improvements since.

If you want to hear the criticisms of the design, here’s a blog post summarising some of it. In short, it is unscientific and intellectually arrogant to put a take home message in too large a font, and it would be boring if all posters used the same template. Okay.

The caveats

I am not a designer, which should be abundantly clear to everyone. I don’t really know what good graphic design principles for a poster are.

There is also no way to satisfy everyone. Some people will think you’ve put too little on the poster unless it ”tells the full story” and a has self-contained description of the methods with all caveats. Some people, like me, will think you’ve put way too much on it long before that.

What I like, however, is that Morrison’s design is based on an analysis of the poster session experience that aligns with mine, and that it is based on a goal for the poster that makes sense. The features of the design flow from that goal. If you listen to the video or the Hertz episode: Morrison has thought about the purpose of the poster.

He’s not just expressing some wisdom his PhD supervisor told him in stern voice, or what his gut feeling tells him, which I suspect is the two sources that scientists’ advice on communication is usually based on. We all think that poster sessions are bad, because we’ve been to poster sessions. We usually don’t have thought-through ideas about what to do better.

Back to a place of negativity

For those reasons, I think the better poster is likely to be an improvement. I was surprised that I didn’t see it sweep through poster sessions at the conferences I went to last summer, but there were a few. I was going to try it for TAGGC 2020 (here is my poster aboutthe genetics of recombination rate in the pig), but that moved online, which made poster presentations a little different.

However, changing up poster layout can only get you so far. Unless someone has a stroke of genius to improve the poster viewing experience or change the economics of poster attendance, there no bright future for the poster session. Individually, the rational course of action isn’t to fiddle with the design and spend time to squeeze marginal improvements out of our posters. It is to spend as little time as possible on posters, ignoring our colleagues’ helpful advice on how to make them prettier and more scientific, and lowering our expectations.

Various positions

What use is there in keeping a blog if you can’t post your arbitrary idiosyncratic opinions as if you were an authority? Here is a list of opinions about life in the scientific community.

Social media for scientists

People who promote social media for scientists by humblebragging about how they got a glam journal paper because of Twitter should stop. An unknown PhD student from the middle of nowhere must be a lot more likely to get into trouble than get on a paper because of Twitter.

Speaking of that, who thinks that that writing an angry letter to someone’s boss is the appropriate response to disagreeing with someone on Twitter? Please stop with that.

Poster sessions

Poster sessions are a pain. Not only do you suffer the humiliation of not begin cool enough to give a talk, you also get to haul a poster tube to the conference. The trouble is that we can’t do away with poster sessions, because they fulfill the important function of letting a lot of people contribute to the conference so that they have a reason to go there.

Now cue comments of this kind: ”That’s not true! I’ve had some of my best conference conversations at poster sessions. Maybe you just don’t know how to make a poster …” It is true that I don’t know how to make a good poster. Regardless, my ad hoc hypothesis for why people say things like this is that they’re already known and connected enough to have good conversations anywhere at the conference, and that the poster served as a signpost for their colleagues to find them.

How can one make a poster session as good as possible? Try to make lots of space so people won’t have to elbow each other. Try to find a room that won’t be incredibly noisy and full of echos. Try to avoid having some posters hidden behind pillars and in corners.

Also, don’t organize a poster competition unless you also organize a keynote competition.

Theory

There is way way way too little theory in biology education, as far as I can tell. Much like computer programming — a little of which is recognized as a useful skill to have even for empirically minded biologists who are not going to be programming experts — it is very useful to be able to read a paper without skipping the equations, or tell whether a paper is throwing dust when it states that ”[unspecified] Theory predicts …” this or that. But somehow, materials for theory manage to be even more threatening than computer documentation, which is an impressive feat. If you disagree, please post in the comments a reference to an introduction to coalescent theory that is accessible for, say, a biology PhD student who hasn’t taken a probability course in a few years.

Language corrections

That thing when reviewers suggest that a paper be checked by a native English speaker, when they mean that it needs language editing, is rude. Find a way of phrasing it that won’t offend that one native English speaker who invariably is on the paper, but doesn’t have an English enough name and affiliation for you!