I’m enjoying a little sunshine and fresh air in Chicago this weekend, attending (and presenting at) the Association for Psychological Science’s 20th annual convention. I love Chicago – it’s one of America’s great cities and I believe everyone should have a chance to visit it in their lifetime.
However, as I sifted through the program, I noticed that literally half the dictionary-sized program was taken up by brief summaries (or abstracts) of what are called “posters.” Posters in convention parlance means a paper, usually a small study, that is most often conducted by a student (college or graduate). Poster sessions get their name from the fact that the student hangs the results of their paper (think something akin to a Powerpoint presentation, printed out) on a big bulletin board.
A typical poster session at a convention like the APS might have 100-150 papers presented, with perhaps 3 or 4 such sessions per day. Yes, that’s right, that’s approximately 300 to 600 papers presented in one day. In a three-day convention, you will easily get over 1,000 papers! (For the record, at this year’s APS convention there are 10 paper sessions with approx. 170 papers per session, totaling an astounding 1,700 posters presented in 3+ days.)
This is just an astounding amount of data.
A poster doesn’t rise to the same level of professional “publication” as a symposium or formal presentation. Nor does anything presented at a professional meeting such as the APS convention rise to the same level as something appearing in a peer-reviewed research journal. But it’s a quick and relatively easy way to add to your professional vita, and it gives students a chance to discuss their results with other interested professionals.
What does a poster session look like? Imagine 10 or 20 rows of 10 large 4 x 8′ bulletin boards creating aisles, side by side, all with a presentation hung on it. All with a requisite student author standing in front of the poster, ready to answer any questions anyone may have about the research. In most cases, poster sessions last about an hour.
I went to a couple of poster sessions while at APS, and noticed what I always notice – very few people came down to check out the posters and fewer still spoke more than 5 sentences to the student who authored the poster. I’ve always felt kind of felt sorry for these students who spent as much effort as many full-time researchers, standing in front of an anonymous bulletin board, waiting for someone to come up and talk to them about their study.
Like someone waiting to be asked to dance.
This seems like an incredibly inefficient use of resources (space, paper, and effort to prepare the bulletin board) and people’s time. I can’t help but wonder — Isn’t there a better way?
Pre-Internet, all of this made sense. There was no easy or simple way to present this enormous amount of data in any other manner.
But now, with the Internet, a professional organization can easily compile posters online in a searchable database, and have them “published” online. Have a question for the researcher? Simply email them.
The first step of this system is available. For instance, poster sessions’ abstracts are available online at the APS website. What’s to stop professional organizations like the APS from moving to the next logical step and making the entire paper available online, pre-convention?
I know there’s value to meeting face-to-face with researchers. But to have them stand there, in front of their papers like some sort of wide-eyed high school student in front of their “science project” in the cafeteria seems… well, “old school.” And very much unnecessary in this day and age. As a right of passage, it seems fine time to retire this tradition and rethink poster sessions at psychological professional conventions.