21 January 2010

Review: Scientific Writing and Communication

In mid January, a copy of Scientific Writing and Communication arrived, quite unbidden, in my mailbox. Of course, the first thing I turned to was to flip through and see if there was anything on posters.

A little bit to my surprise, Chapter 27 is devoted to posters, although posters get less ink than talks, as is often the case. The chapter on posters run 16 pages, compared to 25 pages about talks.

The advice here is generally solid but basic. Much of it can be distilled down to make it visual, and make it big.

The text is broken into little fits and starts that encourages browsing rather than deep reading (very similar to Pechenik 2010). There are guidelines presented as section headings, bullet lists of “Dos” and “Don’ts,” examples (all with thumbs up icons next to them; there are no examples of bad posters in this chapter), a terminal preparation checklist, and finally a summary of all the guidelines... that also appeared as section headings.

The first guideline in the posters chapter, “Design your poster around your research question,” lists an abstract as a poster component. Weirdly, Hoffman later includes, “Do not use your conference abstract as text on the poster” on a list of “Don’ts,” before settling in on “Some posters have abstracts, some don’t” a few pages later. I appreciate that practices vary substantially from conference to conference, but the text here doesn’t make that point explicit.

The chapter contains two completed sample posters. One is a generic layout that is not very useful, featuring my favourite hot button, inconsistent alignment.

The title isn’t centered. Figure 1 is wider than 2, while Figure 3 is skinnier than 4. The horizontal spacing is also strange, with Figures 1 and 2 being closer than 3 and 4. The references box is wider than everything above it and intrudes into the column to its left. And I have no idea what those shadowboxes around the figures are supposed to be.

The other example is an actual poster. It looks like it is quite a good poster, but it’s printed rather small, so it’s difficult to pick up some of the details. The book is printed in black and white throughout, though, and the original poster was in colour. It makes the annotation, “coloring is appealing,” somewhat unhelpful. Indeed, many of the examples would have been enhanced if they could have been printed in colour; they look a bit muddy on they page.

One section provides a list on online resources, dated to October 2009. None of the three links provided as resources on how to use software to create posters worked.

  • Creating a large-format poster in PowerPoint: Page will not load
  • Creating a poster using MS PowerPoint: Missing
  • Poster presentations using FrameMaker: Missing

I fared better with the pages listed under “Other useful links,” but even one of those had moved. Plus, they all have horrible, long URLs. For those who don’t want to have to type them in yourself, here they are:

I am picking on only one short chapter out of a book that runs close to 700 pages. The stated purpose of the book is to provide a “one stop shop” for any kind of scientific writing. It covers manuscripts, grant proposals, job applications, English as a second language, plagiarism, and much more. And when you have this much breadth, it’s not surprising that any one subject is going to suffer a bit in terms of depth.


Hoffman A. 2009. Scientific Writing and Communication. Oxford University Press: Oxford. ISBN 978-0-19-539005-6. OUP link | Amazon link

Pechenik JA. 2010. A Short Guide to Writing About Biology (7th Edition). Longman. Publisher link | Amazon link

1 comment:

Jay Buckley said...

The easiest way to get started with a poster is to download a template. There are a lot of them available as PowerPoint files from various websites, often those of poster printing companies.