Editorial: “Your abstract has been selected for a poster presentation”

By Dr. Stacey Finley

Attending conferences remains a conventional way to stay connected to the research community. There are many benefits gained from attending these scientific meetings, including presenting your research, hearing new work from colleagues, and networking.

Despite the benefits, the reality is that everyone is busy. There are more meetings, workshops, and conferences than what is physically possible to attend. The resources (time and money) required for travel quickly add up. In addition, the effect of academics traveling to meetings has an appreciable carbon footprint, which has become more of a consideration lately.

For these reasons, we each decide which meetings to attend and how long to stay. We aim to balance the resources spent to attend a meeting and the benefits gained from attending. Related to this, another key decision is how to best participate in the meeting. To share our work at a conference, we usually submit an abstract that will be evaluated based on the quality and novelty of the results. When an abstract is accepted, it is selected for an oral or poster presentation. However, the submitting author may decide not to present in their assigned session. Some authors feel that a poster presentation is not a good use of their time, and they may even withdraw the abstract.

Are poster sessions useful?

The question of the utility of poster sessions is not a new one. For example, Rowe and Ilic provide an overview of the literature concerning the use of posters as a medium to present results at scientific conferences. They also analyzed survey responses from attendees of the 2014 FEBS/EMBO conference. Based on the data, the authors state that poster presentations are an inefficient means of disseminating research results. Dr. Iva Cheung, professional editor, designer, and publishing consultant, also provides a detailed argument as to the lack of utility of poster sessions. Articles such as these suggest that poster sessions must be restructured or done away with altogether.

Poster 2.0?

On the other hand, a more recent Twitter debate is centered around whether the poster itself should be changed. In a YouTube video that has now been viewed by hundreds of thousands of people, Mike Morrison, a doctoral student in the Department of Psychology at Michigan State University, argues for radically changing the format of posters. Check out the #betterposter campaign on Twitter. The new poster format aims to emphasize the main finding of the research and what the viewer absolutely needs to know, ultimately removing clutter from the poster. Of course, there are also arguments against this format. No matter what, it is clear that the new format has revived the conversation about the utility of research posters and how to best use the medium for presenting results.

What does all of this mean for the Society for Mathematical Biology?

We sought to hear opinions directly from attendees of the 2019 SMB Annual Meeting. In an informal survey distributed via Twitter, we asked conference attendees in what format their favorite presentation was given and whether they engaged with presenters who gave oral or poster presentations. We also asked if presenters (both oral poster) received useful feedback. In addition, we asked whether they would withdraw an abstract if it were selected for a poster rather than a talk. The results are shown below.

Figure 1: Results from survey of S2019 MB Annual Meeting attendees.

The majority of responders (79%) stated that their favorite presentation was in the form of a talk (Figure 1A). Overall, nearly the same percentage responders engaged with presenters, no matter whether it was a poster and oral presentation (Figure 1B). However, more oral presenters reported receiving useful feedback, compared to those who presented posters (Figure 1C). Additionally, more than half of the responders (56%) stated they would likely not withdraw an abstract selected for a poster instead of an oral presentation (Figure 1D).

With just 47 responders for the survey, the results only capture a small percentage and should be considered anectodal. However, it appears that within the SMB membership, there is not a consensus about the usefulness of posters. Although few may be likely to withdraw their abstract if selected for a poster, most do not feel that they receive helpful feedback during their poster presentation. So, the debate continues!

Editor’s Perspective

I believe the poster sessions held during the annual meeting should not be an afterthought. Organizers should consider the time of day that the poster session will be held, the length of the session, how many posters are presented, and how to draw attendees in. Having short 2-minute lightening talks allow presenters to quickly advertise their work and invite attendees to visit the poster for a more in-depth presentation. These short talks could even be organized by topic specific so the right attendees are targeted. It takes a concerted effort to make the sessions valuable to all, and the SMB Annual meeting is a great opportunity to try different tactics and optimize the usefulness and excitement about poster sessions.

What do you think?

We welcome your thoughts! Have poster sessions been useful, in your opinion? Do you have ideas about how to improve the poster sessions at the SMB Annual Meeting? Have you adopted the new poster format? If so, have you been able to better engage with poster session attendees?

We are happy to hear from you – please email your thoughts to the contact editor, Dr. Robin Thompson, at robin.thompson@chch.ox.ac.uk.

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