More thoughts on alternative posters and alternatives in general

I’ve seen some pushback on Twitter lately (one example here, but there are certainly others) regarding the idea of alternative posters. Some of it seems to be directed at the simplified poster design template that’s been going around lately (that is, the one I have an example of in the previous post). The critics claim it has too much negative space, it doesn’t focus on the data supporting claims, or that it just looks ugly. It’s clear that much of the criticism is about that specific poster design, and not about the idea of alternative scientific communication itself, but the complaints highlight a few general difficulties which continue to be pervasive in academia and scholarly interactions.

Pictured: how I feel at most poster sessions, including the sensation of trying to look though the back of someone’s head

Pictured: how I feel at most poster sessions, including the sensation of trying to look though the back of someone’s head

  1. Audiences and expectations are changing. If you work in a particular field, e.g. environmental chemistry, you likely collaborate with people in that field most of the time. You see them at the same few meetings you usually attend. You all publish findings in the same collection of publications, and you know or at least recognize their editorial staff members. You have established explicit or implicit standards in your field, such as the minimum amount or quality of evidence needed to support a conclusion. You know which kinds of experiments should be done to answer a given question. You want to see certain kinds of results, down to specific figure and visualization types. In short, you have a set of well-established expectations about How Science Is Done.

    This all becomes a challenge as projects become larger and more interdisciplinary. Researchers exposed to a new field likely don’t have the pre-conceived expectations of someone who has been in that field for the last decade or so. When communicating findings, their goal is less of “here is how I prove my hypothesis, which we already know is relevant, why would you even question the relevance of our field, let’s not get into why what we do is valid” and more of “yes, my findings are relevant to you, yes, this is a real field and people get paid to do it, of course it may impact your work too, please don’t walk away, come back, come back, I know this figure looks complicated but I can help to explain it, give me a chance”. Effective communication in interdisciplinary scenarios needs to address high-level questions. That takes a lot of effort! I think the most appropriate solution is to save most of the intricate data analyses and visualizations for settings where audiences can absorb them at their own pace (like papers, handouts, web pages, videos, apps, or pretty much anything other than a poster).

  2. Researchers wear many hats. I wish there was a better metaphor for this, since “hats” implies different roles, like how putting on a cowboy hat makes you a cowboy. Perhaps it’s more like bumper stickers on an old Volvo or patches on a punk’s denim jacket. Everyone working in any facet of science — but particularly folks in academia — are expected to have bits and pieces of varied skills, many of which they pick up organically or through self-teaching. They need to learn effective public speaking, management, accounting, and graphic design, in degrees often depending on how many people they work with who have developed those skills already (e.g., a student may join a lab in which a postdoc is dead-set on making all the figures, or they may work in a field with few opportunities for giving talks). Some of these issues, like the tendency for investigators to lack formal management training before beginning a lab, are well-recognized and may have a few solid solutions. Others, like the expectation that researchers will just figure out how to produce effective illustrations and figures, are baked into academic culture, I suspect.

    So what does this have to do with posters? I believe posters are the best example of the compromise between acquiring an in-depth knowledge of the skills necessary for truly impactful communication of novel findings and ideas (primarily marketing, graphic design, and editing) and obtaining skills and knowledge in a specific scientific field. Posters aren’t terribly good media for presenting ideas, they’re just good enough. They’re simple, they’re not overly dissimilar from published papers or books, and you can put a whole mess of them in a convention center without violating many fire codes.

  3. There’s just too much to read. This issue has to do with expectations, again, namely the expectation that any single researcher has a comprehensive understanding of the state of the field. This may be possible if you define a field in a very narrow way, like “only papers by my friends or their advisors, published in these three journals, and even then only if I’m looking for citations for a review I’m writing”. I just don’t think it’s possible otherwise. Obviously it’s not practical to read every paper in most fields or even every poster abstract for the larger conferences (i.e., those with more than 5,000 attendees or so), but even staying aware of recent developments is a full-time job. The strategy of following established leaders in the field can help but risks ignoring the work by those without a major following yet (and, crucially, minority voices who already have to deal with the systemic tendency to devote attention to people who resemble folks in the field, often white men).

    This may be a situation in which posters just add to the noise. I don’t have a decent solution here, and strategies to make posters more eye-catching and noticeable address a different problem entirely. Perhaps posters are another area where a more structured product would be helpful: if I could reliably pull them en masse into some kind of poster aggregator, at least they would be easier to browse. I still suspect that many findings would be more appropriately delivered through other media.