Re-press: The use of scientific posters to disseminate research data. F1000 Guest Blog, 20.08.2014

The use of scientific posters to disseminate research data

Posted by Guest Author, 20 August 2014

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Do you create and present posters at scientific conferences? We thought so. Posters are one of the key ways early research is disseminated. Academic Editor, Researcher and F1000 Specialist Nicholas Rowe explains the important role posters play and why we need to pay more attention to them.

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In our professional and academic roles, we often produce a series of ‘outputs’ by which the impact of our activities can be gauged. These tend to reflect the way we disseminate our work and also how we interact with our peer-community. From an external perspective, the most visible impact is perceived from high level publications, which are often the focus of research excellence initiatives and relate strongly to potential research funding streams. The interpretation of a journals ranking to be representative of the quality of any particular article is however debatable, as impact factors reflect an overall citation rate. Never the less, a publication in Mega Journal X is often lauded by peers and put up as an example of the institutions ‘research excellence’.

Activities that benefit us as individuals are given far less acclaim, regardless of how they may benefit our work or professional practice. Such activities often come under the umbrella of Continued Professional Education (CPE), or Continued Professional Development (CPD). The most common form of engagement with this area is the conference setting, whereby we stay abreast of current trends in our fields and interact with our peers. Although this is a key requirement of professional practice, the importance and efficacy of conference practices is given little real appreciation by those outside the conference event. This is often because there is no tangible output that can represent either the detail or quality of the work presented, or the benefit gained from peer-interaction.

Oral presentations have a captive audience and are much sought after by those who wish to disseminate their research. In conference proceedings, they also feature more prominently than poster presentations and workshops and so have a higher degree of visibility. Oral presentations also have a ‘script’ making it easier to later convert the material into a more visible journal article. Far outnumbering the oral presentations however, are the poster presentations. Introduced to the international scene in 1969, poster sessions were seen as an opportunity for more people to present their work to their peers. Initially, this was met with a mixed reception. People valued the increased opportunity to present, and when they were introduced to the US in 1974 they were seen as “a major milestone”.1 Only five years later however, poster sessions were already being labelled as ‘inferior’, because posters were not considered as ‘published’.2

Presenting at conferences is seen as an important way to obtain funding to attend conferences,3 and so putting an abstract together can pay dividends. Conferences host ever-increasing numbers of posters, and unless the abstract has serious flaws, it is likely to be accepted. Delegates are often faced with a sea of posters, so locating and engaging with topics of interest is a daunting task. This often depends on levels of individual commitment and motivation, as well as mundane considerations such as the need for relaxation, coffee and enjoying the social aspects of the conference. Therefore, poster presenters often report low levels of engagement with their work. Conversion of poster-delivered content into a later full article also requires more work3, given the structured brevity of both the poster information and the abstract. As such, posters are often only published as either short abstracts or title citations in peer-reviewed journals. Even more disturbing however, is the fact that many abstract submissions are made with no intent to further develop the topic into a fuller paper that could be of benefit to those beyond the conference setting – they are simply a claim for funding. 3 This further contributes to their perception as a ‘lesser’ activity, both in the conference setting and beyond, and if this latter motivation is considered, then the ethics of such practices have to be considered as well.

Poster presentation is a deceptively large practice. Posters are produced on all five inhabited continents and used by over 90 specialist fields. Utilized at local, regional, national and international levels, the number of posters produced each year is hard to estimate. However, even based on limited published numbers of events; the number of posters hosted and the average cost of an individual presentation (man-hours, production, travel & accommodation, conference fees etc.) show that poster presentation is a multi-million dollar activity in terms of expenditure.

Whilst this serves to demonstrate the engagement of individuals in the practice (intrinsic motivation), it conflicts with the needs of poster viewers at the event, the peer-community and also society. So, what do we get from presenting our research in poster format, and perhaps more importantly, what is missing?

tableposters

As shown, whilst presenting a poster can meet some of the needs expressed by poster users, most of these favour the presenter. Beyond acting as a justification for funding however, even these needs are only partially met. Research dissemination looks to serve the wider community in contributing useful information, and it would seem that any hard work and effort put into individual poster presentations is unlikely to serve this purpose. The main reasons for this revolve around issues of visibility and quality; the development of which are seen to be of mutual benefit to both poster presenters and poster users.

Various issues are involved, but conference organisers may present the first line in addressing the problems faced. The practical limitations of conferences understandably limit the length of poster sessions, but given the sheer number of posters (all of which have paid a delegate fee), perhaps further exposure could be offered by making material available on-line both before and during the conference. More detail could be added by requiring a pdf of the poster itself to be submitted, rather than just an abstract. Highlighting ‘points for discussion’ would also act as a guide for those who want to know more about the poster’s aim and purpose. By making this material freely available post-conference, the content information of poster presentations would also have a greater benefit potential.

For publishers, a simple abstract or title listing does not tend to provide any depth of usable information. The reporting of conference activity is perhaps better suited to an on-line facility which may permit a more detailed coverage. Currently, there are a few self-archive repositories that house poster presentations. Examples include, Electronic Presentation Online System displaying >17k posters in the area of radiology; e-posters displays >2k posters in science and medicine; F1000Posters exhibits >6k posters in biology & medicine and Figshare, covering all sciences

Measures such as these may serve not only to address the shortcomings of poster presentation, but also to ensure that conference activities are seen as a worthwhile and valid element of professional practice. Poster presentation is conceptually valued, but suffers from a range of commonly expressed issues. In themselves, posters present an ideal medium by which to display key elements of research data to an engaged audience and formulate discussion. But until the central issues of visibility and quality are addressed, poster presentations will remain unappreciated and of limited benefit to those outside such a discussion.

Paradoxically, posters are likely to remain a key feature of professional practice for the foreseeable future and retain their high levels of usership and expenditure. It is however, important to ensure that more attention is paid to the development of this poster practice, increasing the associated benefit for its users, and becoming more efficient in its objective of disseminating research. Due to changes in scientific and scholarly practice, our audience is no longer limited to those with whom we directly engage, so measures should be taken to ensure work has the realistic potential of reaching those who may benefit from it. If we continue to stand alone by a piece of A1 paper for a couple of hours and then roll it back into the tube, it is very much a case of wasted research and resources. To bring the importance of poster practice home, have a look at the following conservative scenario of poster presentation expenditure:

In 2013, Conference Alerts.com4 advertised 3,565 international conferences.

** They are not the only conference advertising service available and it is very unlikely that this figure comes close to adequately representing the number of events that took place **

Suppose each of these events hosted only 50 poster presentations (178,250 posters).

** Major international conferences can easily host in excess of 1,000 posters **

If each poster entailed printing (£16/€20/$27), travel to the event(£160/€200/$268), and the conference fee (£80/€100/$134); if each poster had only 10 hours spent on its compilation @ (£16/€20/$27) per hour:

3,565 X 50 X (£417/€520/$698) = over 74 million GBP / 92 million Euros / 124 million USD

My own experience is that costs and numbers greatly exceed these conservative figures, so feel free to substitute your own wage and costings. Just make sure there are enough noughts left on your calculator.

References

1. Harte R. Poster sessions-better way to communicate. Federation proceedings; FEDERATION AMER SOC EXP BIOL 9650 ROCKVILLE PIKE, BETHESDA, MD 20814-3998; 1974.

2. Eisenschitz T, Knox J, Oppenheim C, Richards K, Wittels P. Poster sessions as a medium of scientific communication. Journal of Research Communication Studies. 1979;1(3):235-42.

3. Autorino R, Quarto G, Di Lorenzo G, De Sio M, Damiano R. Are abstracts presented at the EAU meeting followed by publication in peer-reviewed journals?: A critical analysis. Eur Urol. 2007;51(3):833-40.

4. Conference Alerts.com. Available from: http://www.conferencealerts.com/. Last Accessed 26.02.2013.

Image of poster session by Eva Amsen, originally published on the Node.
– See more at: http://blog.f1000research.com/2014/08/20/the-use-of-scientific-posters-to-disseminate-research-data/#sthash.2xFmNYVc.dpuf

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