21 June 2012

Abstract abolition!

Don’t put an abstract on your poster.

Conference posters are summaries.

Poster are condensed versions of a scientific story. Posters should be something that you can walk someone through in a few minutes. Posters should be self contained: everything is there in one place.

But many research stories are complex. This means that you are often pressed for space on a poster, even if the conference organizers have generously sized poster boards. If you look at the critiques on this blog, you’ll see that one of the most common complaints I have is “crowded.”

Why, oh why, would you ever put an abstract on a poster?

Abstracts are useful things for scientific papers: they allow you to get the gist of a story and figure out if the whole paper is worth reading. They are useful for conference booklets for the same reason.

But if you’re standing at a poster... you don’t need to look at an abstract to whether to look at the poster. You can look at the poster itself.

This seems to arise out of the unrelenting desire to make everything follow the standard format of academic papers. But posters are not papers.

Now, some conferences deliberately instruct poster presenters to put conference abstracts on their posters. In the past, I have done this because I want to follow instructions. They’re usually there for a reason. But I have had it with that. I’m going rogue. Because it’s a rule without consequences. Nobody ever checks posters.

Conference organizers, I’m asking you nicely this one time: stop telling people to put abstracts on posters.

Putting an abstract on a conference poster is liking writing a haiku about a limerick.

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Photo by elod beregszaszi on Flickr; used under a Creative Commons license.

6 comments:

Gweemus said...

I have mixed feelings about this. I understand your points, and I agree that in many cases less is more. HOWEVER, I know how many/most of the people I attend meetings with actually move through poster sessions, and they do this: wander, scan title, then if interested scan author list and/or abstract and move on. A poster without a recognizable succinct point easily found, basically doesn't get read. There are another 1000 posters to go, and the average attendee can't process them enough to look at a full poster.

laurenrmeyer said...

Amen. All blocks of text, including abstracts, should be eliminated. Ugh.

Zen Faulkes said...

Gweemus: A well done poster should be easier to scan than a typical abstract in a conference booklet.

You do this by using short, punchy titles that can be easily scanned. See this post, for instance.

You do this by providing summaries. See this post, for instance.

And so on.

mischy said...

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Absolutely right. Posters are made to invite and grab people's attention. It's should be eye catching, straight to the point and clear.

Colin Purrington said...

It's probably the number one subject of hate mail I get re my poster page...there are a lot of people who just love Abstracts on posters. It's usually meeting organizers. My view has always been that if you think your poster _needs_ an abstract, it's likely that you've crammed too much stuff on the poster in the first place.

Amit said...

I totally agree. I DO put the abstract on the poster - ALL over it, not as a separate section :-). No good abstract is more than 500 words, no good poster should have more than 600.

So, I just pare down some parts of the abstract or make them in to bullet points (only if they are more than 3), plump-up some other parts - so that the sections look relevant to the photos, graphs etc, and columns line up, and I am DONE!

Incidentally, I use Inkscape. A few times: Use the grid feature ( + <#>) to make sure everything lines up,
- ImageOptimizer to reduce HUGE photo file sizes (make sure the final size is close to the one you are going to put on the poster)
- ImageJ to crop photos / make them in to ovals / circles / odd shapes to fit your paragraph / hide ugly bits / parts you don't want others to see etc.