As scholars we regularly attend conferences as part of our professional practice. Giving a presentation is often a pre-requisite to getting funding to attend, but as podium space is limited, posters have become a major form of dissemination.1 Big poster sessions (defined by published industry figures as having 300+ delegates per event [av.223 delegates2]) often leave you feeling that your poster does not attract enough interest – but although mainstream articles suggest this lack of engagement is related to poster design, it is more likely because people simply don’t have the capacity to see all the work which is on display.
Conferences are busy events, but regardless of our good intentions, we only have a certain number of hours to devote to our activities. Poster sessions are popular, but they often play second fiddle to oral presentations. Poster titles and abstracts are made available in conference proceedings, but as we orientate ourselves to our new destination, sort out personal arrangements etc., we have little time to engage with them. Also, as the conference progresses, busy schedules, new contacts and social obligations lead to ‘conference fatigue’.3 This not only increases as a conference progresses, but it negatively affects our motivation to engage with work which lies outside the main conference sessions.
Poster sessions are limited by time, and this affects how much attention people can give to individual posters and how many they can ultimately visit. If people are going to visit your work based on your abstract in the proceedings, then logically they will have to have read it in the first place. Using published adult reading capacity rates,4 we can reliably predict the amount of written information a delegate can consume. Even good readers can only read at around 500 effective words per minute (only 1% of us are ‘expert’ readers). This is especially important in the context of international conferences where work is mainly conducted in English, but where many researchers are likely to stem from non-Anglophone nations, and hence likely have lower English language reading capacities and increased barriers to communication (see e.g. Montgomery’s work on this5).
How much information can a ‘good’ reader consume?
60 minutes reading proceedings: 120 x 250 word abstracts / 60 x 500 word abstracts
60 minutes during a poster session: Visit 10 posters for 6 minutes each
‘Read’ 30 x 1000 word posters
Divide the available conference material by these amounts, and you can see the potential for consumption and also the potential for waste… For example…
The American Geophysical Union fall meeting of 2013 serves as a good illustration of how much material we can consume at big events, and perhaps more importantly, how much we will miss. If only the 1st session (1/27: Atmospheric Sciences) is considered:
- If delegates dedicated 1 hour’s concentrated reading to studying the abstracts published for the session, then only 1.36–2.72% of the available work could have been read by any one individual.
- The abstracts of just this one subject area alone would have taken 73.65 hours to read efficiently @ 250 ewpm / 36.83 hrs @ 500 ewpm. There were 27 subject areas of similar size.
- The AGU Atmospheric Sciences session had 3654 posters. If a poster contained 1000 words, it would have taken a minimum of 122 hours to ‘read’ all of the posters on display. Again, this does not account for any discussion with the presenter, time spent between posters, personal time or refreshments, or time spent on other aspects of the conference such as exhibitor displays or networking.
- If only 15 words of a title were read to determine interest, it would have needed a minimum of 1.83 hours of non-stop reading to simply be aware of the posters on offer (1000 /2000 titles per hour). Despite the presentation abstracts being housed online by the conference organiser, they occur only as short abstracts, are listed by title, and there is no functional recourse to the presented poster, imagery or supplementary data.
As conferences differ in size, it is only right to give some examples of firstly, how many presentations may be held, and secondly, what proportion of these might be posters. Conferences are so widespread that collating comprehensive data on their numbers and content is not currently possible. However, if you randomly sample mainstream international events, it is not unusual to find presentations similar to those shown below:
As a final restriction to our engagement with posters, when we walk into mass poster sessions, we are faced with a ‘paradox of choice’6 where because there is so much information available, we actually find ourselves overwhelmed and less motivated to make informed and conscious choices. The effect of this paradox is increasingly proportionate to the number of posters on display, but to date, no research has examined this concept in relation to information management or the conference setting.
Addressing the problem
Increasing the visibility of posters is a very important concern, given the high rates of engagement and funding they attract and the amount of time and effort their creators spend on designing them. Regardless of how well designed posters are, if they are not seen, they cannot have any influence or effect. On-going research suggests that the solution needs to be centrally addressed, and focuses on ways that poster information (and conference outputs in general) can reach wider audiences, and offer greater visibility and return for investment. The restrictions of time, motivation and capacity also apply to our ability to effectively review submitted abstracts, and to evaluate posters for awards or merit. Thus conference organisers and the overall scientific community have a vested interest in solving this problem.
We attend conferences to learn from each other, to share our knowledge and to interact with our peers, but developments in technology and communication mean that our peer community now stretches beyond the confines of a single conference. Individually however, there are some measures you can take to help disseminate your work further:
- Unless you have re-assigned the copyright to your abstract, paper or poster, you can make it available to others on professional social media profiles, institutional repositories and on personal websites. The easier people can find it, the more likely they are to engage with you and your work.
- If your work provides sufficient detail and has a permanent record, then others may cite or refer to it. Provide quality indicators, resources and links to help others evaluate your efforts.
- Regardless of whether you present a full paper, oral presentation or poster, consider how you can develop the work into a full publication. Posters have less text than a conference paper and need more work to develop, so keeping notes as you compile the poster will help you when you develop it later on.
The concepts of conference fatigue, the paradox of choice and our finite capacity to consume information are crucial when we consider how posters convey information, facilitate networking and attract attention. Although poster literature gives much attention to the compilation and design of posters, if a work is not seen, it cannot be appreciated or used. The continued development of poster design is valuable, but until changes are made in how we manage poster sessions themselves, the hard work we put into our posters may continue to go relatively unnoticed. Poster submissions continue to feature as the predominant medium (in terms of numbers) of conference presentation, so their popularity is not in question. However, when balanced against the amount of time and money we invest in the medium, these identified barriers serve to make the overall mechanism of conference poster sessions relatively inefficient. But with central and individual efforts to improve the way information on offer at conferences is both accessed and managed, then posters and poster sessions may function more effectively as a valid means of scientific communication.
- Rowe, N. & Ilic, D. Rethinking poster presentations at large‐scale scientific meetings: Is it time for the format to evolve? FEBS Journal, 282 (19), 3661-3668 (2015).
- PWC [PricewaterhouseCoopers] (2014). The economic significance of meetings to the US economy. Interim Study Update for 2012 (Executive Summary). Convention Industry Council: Alexandria VA. Retrieved from: http://www.ficpnet.com/sites/default/files/CIC%20Meetings%20ESS%20Update%20Executive%20Summary%20FINAL%20FINAL.pdf
- Havergal, C. Is ‘conference fatigue’ harming academia? Times Higher Education, December 24th (2015).
- com. Typical Reading Results. Available at: http://www.readingsoft.com/. Accessed 02 March (2016)
- Montgomery, S. L. Does science need a global language?: English and the future of research University of Chicago Press (2013).
- Schwartz, B. The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. New York: Harper Collins (2004).
About the author
Nicholas Rowe is an educationalist, with trans-disciplinary interests in scientific communication and professional development. He is a dual fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy and the Society for Education and Training, and has been researching posters and conferences since 2009. He has lectured internationally of the topic and published a range of related academic works. He now lives in Finnish Lapland.