30 December 2021

Link round-up for December 2021

Antonia Hadjimichael has a blog post, “Five tips for creating visually appealing scientific posters.” It contains some material familiar to readers of the blog. It is always great to see ideas spread!

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The question of whether there can be rules to design, including data visualizations, is a vexed one. This thoughtful blog post suggests that there are come helpful steps you can use to help land on a good graph.

I think that many common dataviz design decisions can be codified as formal rules that can be followed by practitioners of any experience level to make the best possible design choice in any situation, without exception. The bad news is that these rules can’t be captured in simple “always/never” sentences... . The good news is that many of them can be captured in relatively simple decision trees.

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Matt Elliot anticipates and solves problems before anyone anyone can make something of it.

Best. Graph. Subtitle. Ever.

Line graph whose subtitle reads, "Please note that the Y axis does not start at zero. Don't hassle me about it. I think a non-zero axis is okay here."

Hat tip to Michael Hoffman

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Nuria Melisa Morales García has a Twitter thread about graphical abstracts. Much of which applies to posters.

09 December 2021

Posters should not be rated like Yelp reviews

WHhn I was on the PolicyViz podcast, there was one joke I left on the floor that I wish I'd told. When Jon asked me about poster competitions, I should have said, “I know: academia isn’t competetive enough. Let’s organize the backstabbing.” Molly Gordon describes her experience at an ASCB conference:

When someone rates my poster 1 ⭐️ at the American Society of Cell Biology... my thesis work, that I pushed forward through a pandemic, poured my heart and soul into, and did my absolute best to summarize into a 5 minute video.

Also, it is not unnoticed that my labmate got a single ⭐️ as well. Someone is actually out there targeting research from certain labs with bad reviews? Geeeeeeez science feels hopeless at times.

If you thought my research and or presentation style was that abysmal, why not offer advice or critique in addition to your rating? Thanks for making the field a more inclusive space ❤️/sarcasm /rant.

I have no idea what is going on here. Neither the meeting’s poster information page nor information for presenters say anything about this rating system. Molly confirms that the ratings are anonymous.

ASCB replied that this is part of the meeting platform and they cannot turn it off. So... maybe a good reason not to use that platform? The person in charge of their Twitter account wrote:

Hopefully we won’t have to organize a virtual meeting on this scale again. It takes all year and 1,000s of hours of planning and team work. It just goes to show you, it’s always something.

I know that the person running a social media account is not the entire leadership of the organization, but this response is a too low key for my taste. If this kind of behaviour took place in a face-to face environment, it might violate a code of conduct.

The ASCB Twitter account also took a moment to complement Molly but not apologize.

Update: ASCB says most one star ratings were  “accidental.” The society does have a code of conduct. It was just hard to find, because it was under “Meeting policies and terms.”

Aside: The ASCB poster template is pretty shocking.

No alignment, switching reading order, and more.

04 December 2021


The Better Posters book is on sale from Pelagic Publishing until December 5! Use the code CHRISTMAS30 at checkout to get 30% off.

Strictly speaking, it’s all Pelagic titles that are on sale, so check out their many fine books.

02 December 2021

The strange case of a “Martian insects” poster

Last week, I wrote about why posters should be reviewed a little more stringently than they usually are. I put out a call on Twitter for posters that people thought should have been nipped in the bud by conference organizers. 

William Romoser
And so it was that I learned of the curious case of a 2019 Ecological Society of America poster, presented by one William S. Romoser.

William Romoser died earlier this year. He was an emeritus professor of Ohio University, where he had a 45 year research career until he retired in 2010. Besides a healthy number of technical articles (many on mosquitoes), he published a major textbook on entomology that went through four editions.

Cover of "Science of Entomology" book

I say all this because I want to stress that Romoser was the real deal. He was no crank. He has earned respect.

Yet he presented the poster below, apparently in all seriousness.

The abstract reads, in part:

To my knowledge... this is the first professional report of direct evidence of identifiable life forms beyond the confines of Earth.

You read that right. Romoser claimed to have found alien life. He claimed there were many insects and reptiles on Mars.

If this were the case, you expect you might have heard about it by now. You haven’t, so... let’s just say that Romoser did not make a compelling case. 

Indeed, the idea that the discover of alien life would be announced on a poster at an ecology meeting rather than with an international press conference and coverage in Nature and Science feels absurd on the face of it.

Here is the poster.

Now, since this is a poster blog that normally focuses on design rather than content, It is frustrating that someone who had been in the game for as long as Romoser was making easily fixed mistakes.

The text is inexcusably tiny throughout. And there is a lot of it.

But back to the content. This poster appears to be a case of a common psychological phenomenon, pareidolia. It’s just ramped up to an extreme.

pareidolia (par·​ei·​do·​lia), noun: the tendency to perceive a specific, often meaningful image in a random or ambiguous visual pattern.

Romoser is far from the first person to fall prey to pareidolia and similar over interpretations. Percival Lowell thought he saw canals on Mars, and believed they were evidence of a vast Martian civilization.

Japanese physician Chonosuke Okamura claimed to have discovered microfossils of miniature humans and other species. He was posthumously awarded an IgNobel prize for this work. 

And many amateurs have claimed to see a face on Mars in blurry NASA photographs. 

I completely missed this story at the time. perhaps because Romoser put a “No tweeting” icon on the poster, there seems to be not chatter about it under the #esa2019 hashtag. Romoser’s request to keep the poster off social media was ineffective, given that Ohio University initially put out a press release about Romoser’s poster. It was soon removed. According to the university, Romoser did not wish to interact with media.

Several people in the Twitter thread suggested that at the time this poster was presented, Remoser was experiencing some mental health issues. That is not for me to say. Regardless of why he believed that these blurry photographs were evidence of insects and snakes, it’s unfortunate that he spent so much effort on a dead end line of inquiry.

I have to agree that this is a poster that the conference organizers should have rejected. I don’t think its presentation at the meeting did anyone any favours, including Romoser.

External links

Does Insect/Arthropod Biodiversity Extend Beyond Earth?

Much ado on Mars, maybe

William Romoser obituary

Science of entolomogy

Mars and Earth - Partners in time? (Facebook page)

University Deletes Press Release Claiming Evidence of Bugs on Mars

It's Still Not Aliens: 'Mars Bug' Claim Could Damage the Search for Life