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The poster session is a ubiquitous part of most medical and scientific meetings. The format is pretty much always the same. The presenter prepares a large poster describing their research project and findings, tacks it to a board, stands by the board, and waits for meeting participants to come by and talk to them about their work.

It’s kind of an open secret that the typical poster session at most meetings is not useful for either the presenter or the attendees. For many of the attendees, the poster session ends up being more of a social gathering than a scientific session. There can be dozens (sometimes hundreds) of posters to see. The posters one visits may be guided more by which friends are presenting than trying to learn anything new. For the presenter, the randomness of the event means that only seldomly does one get good feedback on your work.

Poster sessions can be painful for junior researchers early in their career who may not know many people attending the meeting. It can really feel uncomfortable standing alone, watching everyone walk by your poster, hoping that someone will take an interest in you and your work.

How odd that a process that works so poorly has become a standard and largely unquestioned part of the scientific community. One would think this would be an area in which there would be experimentation and efforts at innovation.

Well, it turns out that there are people innovating and thinking of ways to add new life to the usually stale poster session! I observed a novel and innovative approach during the National Palliative Care Research Center(NPCRC) Scientific Retreat. It works like this:

  1. The audience is assigned to small groups of about 10 participants each
  2. Over the course of the poster session, each group will rotate through about 5-6 posters, spending about 15 minutes at each poster
  3. When the group arrives at the poster, the presenter spends about 5 minutes summarizing their research with a brief presentation of the research question, scientific approach, and results
  4. The group then spends about 10 minutes asking the poster presenter questions about their research, and providing constructive suggestions

What this means for an audience member is that you will spend your time thinking critically and interacting meaningfully with a small number of scientists, instead of spending your time wandering aimlessly through the meeting hall.

What this means for the poster presenter is that you will have the opportunity to get better known and present your work to a significant number of scientific colleagues. Instead of hoping someone shows up at your poster, you know you will get meaningful feedback and advice. The dynamic of a small group also means that you will learn from colleagues who are thinking together about your research question.

It is time for the scientific and medical community to acknowledge that the poster session, one of the mainstays of the typical scientific meeting, is largely a failed forum. It is time for experimentation and innovation. The NPCRC approach provides a model for scientific communities that wish to turn their poster sessions into forums for meaningful collegeal interaction.

by: Ken Covinsky

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. I have recently, for the first time participated with a poster at a AACE( American Association of Cancer Education) meeting and it was a pleasant surprise to learn that a small team the judges were assigned a small group of posters to judge. They listened to our research, asked questions and even though there was awkward time spent standing near the poster, this was diminished by the opportunity to talk, for the first time, about the work itself and to reflect on their comments, questions.

  2. Since we're complaining about poster sessions. I think we should also make a nice crease down the middle acceptable.

    That way, they could fit into a suitcase!!

  3. I'm at this NPCRC meeting and completely agree. The poster session is one of my favorite parts of the meeting. I'm not sure why – I think it's something about being with the same group of people walking around and discussing research, it develops into a small group learning project. There's something about the small group learning that appeals – the shared sense of purpose, taking on different roles, reaching a common understanding – that makes it feel more like an accomplishment.

    From the other side, as a poster presenter at NPCRC this year, I would also say this format is far superior to others. I was interested to find that each small group took their line of questions in different directions, again evidence that each group forms it's own "identity" based on the component members, their personalities, areas of expertise, and so on. As a presenter, you feel that several groups of people paid close attention to your work, and you receive critical feedback from 3-4 mini works in progress like meetings.

    It's kind of like group speed dating for academic research.

    And to Dan – Mike Rabow brought his poster folded up! New kind of poster made out of foldable paper! Love the idea.

  4. Having also participated in the NPCRC session, I agree strongly with Ken and Alex. It was a most productive and enriching poster experience!

  5. We’ve experimented with doing this in the past with limited success. There are two (at least) challenges: (1) sheer number of posters; and (2) competing sessions (audience wanders in on its own time). Any thoughts on how to scale this guided tour approach up? Is there a way to organize the presenters so they can serve in dual audience/presenter roles during the session they've been assigned to present in?

    We are going to do a teaching session following our #AGS12 Presidential Poster session with John Beilenson — about 10 posters will be selected and he'll do a walking tour focused on the communication side of a poster and being sure it is a good messaging tool for your research. It's geared for junior faculty and trainees.

  6. Nancy—thanks for your comments. I think you allude to an important point. Small meetings like the NPCRC have an advantage, as the logistic get harder with bigger meetings and more posters. A few observations:

    1) Another poster session that tends to work well for the presenters is the Presidential Poster Session at AGS. Because the posters are "judged" to select best poster, each presenter is visited by several engaged audience members. The engagement is a side effect of the judging. But the engagementt is probably more important than the judging. Maybe there are ways to duplicate this engagement in the sessions that are not judged.

    2) The model of the Geriatrics visiting professor program at SGIM has also been useful. Outside the regular poster session (usually 7am. Ouch!) the visiting professor tours a number of geriatric themed posters by junior presenters. The presenter gets a lot of attention from a well known luminary and their entourage. The model has been so successful that it has been adopted by other thematic constituencies in SGIM such as Women's Health and Cancer.

    3) I have seen the odd/even approach tried at several meetings. Presenters with odd poster numbers stand by their poster for the first half of the session, even numbers for the second half. For this to really work, a cultural expectation needs to be created in which it is not cool to view your off time as social hour. There needs to be an expectation that you engage the other presenters during this time.

    This may be a challenging problem to solve, but that is why we need experimentation (and a willing to acknowledge that some experiments will fail and agree that is OK)

    The walkaround with John B is a great idea. Those who follow his approach produce much better posters–and will find more people stopping by their poster.

  7. Linda Saunders and I talked about the ideas you’ve laid out here in terms of what we might implement for AGS12. We are thinking that we would like to try a modification of the alternating odd/even poster idea that asks for some leadership from specific poster presenters. We’re dubbing it the Pied Pipers Program – basically, we would anoint 1 or 2 of the end positions on each aisle to organize a poster tour for their aisle for each session. We would get in touch with the “anointed folks” prior to the meeting with some information about the collaborative learning culture we are hoping to create (your blog post that started this conversation would be great for that) and maybe some questions for getting the conversation started and simple instructions for organizing themselves. We’d also provide these at the poster boards – along with a ribbon or some other acknowledgement of their expanded role.

    Do folks think this would work? Any thoughts on how to improve on the idea?

  8. Nancy–I think the idea you and Linda are suggesting is great. What seems creative about the Pied Piper idea is the concept of having something emerge from the poster presenters themselves–It can foster peer to peer collaboration–which is a nice culture to infuse into the meeting.

  9. Thanks Ken — we will move ahead with planning this and getting the necessary sign-offs. Be warned that we'll probably be bouncing ideas off of you — particularly as it relates to potentially getting our Pied Pipers to Tweet. Nancy

  10. As the past chair for the AGS Jr Faculty Sig, I really like the idea of a Pied Piper. Our current committee may be interested in facilitating some of these peer to peer interactions. I, too, think we need modify our current poster presentation strategies. At other meetings (even larger than AGS), they often have a hybrid 5-minute "oral poster" moderated session for the posters scoring in the top tier. Of course, you prepare an oral and a poster presentation — extra work component. The increased visibility is often worth the extra work!

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