Designing and Presenting Research Posters

By Shannon Lucky, Information Technology Librarian, University of Saskatchewan
Bernice Leyeza, Research Assistant, Department of Geography & Planning, University of Saskatchewan

This summer I have been fortunate to have Bernice working as a research assistant, partially funded by an undergraduate student research grant at our institution. Part of the grant program has the RAs participate in a research poster competition at the end of the summer. This sounded like the perfect opportunity to co-write a post about designing and presenting a research poster from our two different perspectives.

I love presenting research posters. I like having real, sometimes lengthy, conversations with people who are interested in my research. I have gotten new perspectives on my work and great suggestions for things to look at, particularly scholarship outside of my academic bubble, from conversations with one or two people in a hall full of posters. This has never happened to me during a standard paper Q&A. Conferences where the posters presentations happen in tandem with refreshments are also a bonus. I have long suspected that the insightful introverts in our communities are a little bolder during cocktail hour than during lecture hall panel discussions.

While presenting a poster might be my favourite part of the process, designing one has been a surprisingly useful scholarly activity. I can easily fill up a word count limit for a paper, but trying to essentialize down what I am really trying to say (conveyed in the right 30 pt. font verbiage) has challenged me to get real about what I am doing – not what I like to think I am doing, or what I want other academics to think I am doing. It is hard to hide behind academic-ese when you have 16 square inches to describe the significance of your project. You also need to actually use that elevator pitch I know I have been coerced into writing at more than one research workshop. This is all to say that it is hard to phone-in a decent poster. You need to know your question, data, and results inside and out; well enough to distill it down to the essential text, speak extemporaneously about it, and probably answer a few questions.

I was lucky to have Bernice as my RA for this project. Not only was she eager to take on the challenge of translating our early results into a poster, she also has design skills that far surpass my own. In planning for the poster we came up with four essential questions that we have done our best to answer from each of our perspectives. We hope that the following advice will be useful for veteran and rookie research poster presenters alike.

  1. What is the poster for and who is my audience?

“My first undergraduate degree required us to master our skills in producing different communication materials. I took a lab class where our weekly assignments were to translate a research article into a poster – good practice for designing your own.” (Bernice)

Whether your poster is for a class or a conference, focus on the most interesting and important information for that audience and what language will speak to them. This is a good time to note any restrictions on dimensions, digital file standards, and any design or content requirements provided by the event organizer. Is this the place to show your creativity, or is it expected that you use a standard template/layout? Look at other examples from researchers in your discipline online or ask colleagues/professors if they can share examples with you. Get an idea of the common practices within your discipline or at the event you will be presenting at.

 

  1. What comes first, the writing or the design?

The quality of your research and ability to communicate its value is first and foremost. You can’t have a successful poster without solid research to communicate. Having said that, there are different approaches to turning your literature review, hypothesis, data, and analysis into a cohesive poster design. Bernice prefers to write up a research article first which helps solidify the important details for the poster. As she transfers the writing into the poster layout she works to make it more concise – good practice for academic writing in general. If the poster is about new (unpublished) research, Shannon prefers to write some quick notes and start laying out the broad ideas on post-its or in the design software. Finessing the writing comes later. Both approaches work well, just make sure to avoid self-plagiarism if you are re-purposing text from your publications and grants to fill out the purpose/methods/relevance sections.

 

  1. What design program should I use?

Unless there is a standard required template, you can use whatever software you like. We recommend using what you are comfortable with so you don’t spend extra hours struggling with the software; there is enough work to do getting your content organised. You can use something as simple as PowerPoint, or as complicated as InDesign, both can give you a professional looking result.

Sometimes universities will have a standard template students and faculty can use. For Bernice’s poster, we wanted it to look like a poster from our institution, but not like all of the other posters in the competition. Instead of using the standard ppt file, Bernice chose to design her own layout in InDesign using the official university colours.

 

  1. How will you make your poster engaging and able to stand out in a hall full of other presenters?

This answer has two approaches: design and presentation.

Design – Use sound design rules for your poster. You can print out 4-6 paragraphs of text in 16 pt. font and call it a day, but taking some extra time to make your poster look approachable (as in, you can read it in less than 30 minutes) and visually appealing will make your research look more approachable and interesting. Using appropriate white space, limiting your colour pallet (and think about accessibility for colour blind readers), and using a legible font in an appropriate size will go a long way to making your poster stand out. A good font size guideline is 85 pt. for the title, 36 pt. for sub headings, 24 pt. for the body, and 18 pt. for captions and references. Using relevant images and diagrams is also a good idea.

Presentation – First and foremost, you want to be presentable. Wear comfortable shoes and clothes that are appropriate for the event. If you feel comfortable you will be more comfortable presenting. Have your elevator pitch memorised, but be ready to have a conversation about your project. Don’t stick to a formal script but if you get nervous you can prepare some talking points and write them down in bullet form. Try to engage with the audience around their interest in your research, not just your favourite ideas. This is a great way to find collaborators or get asked questions that may not come up in a formal conference Q&A. While you are standing by your poster waiting for someone to approach put your phone away, smile, and say hello. Don’t just talk to the people you know or people from your institution, you never know what kind of connections you will make.

This is a great networking opportunity, so make it easy for people to follow-up with you after the event. Include your email address, Twitter handle, or website URL directly on your poster and bring your business cards with you. If you won’t be standing next to your poster for the entire event, pin up a few cards next to your poster for people to take.

A few final tips:

  • If you are travelling to present at a conference, plan ahead to have your poster printed at your destination. Shannon has had good luck using hosting universities’ campus print shops, and Staples is always a quick and nearly universal option. This will save you having to carry on a poster tube or risking damaging or losing your poster en route.
  • Get the most mileage out of your poster. If your institution has an institutional repository, add your poster and some speaking notes to your profile. If you have a personal academic website, link to a pdf version of your poster there. Like any scholarly communication product, this may be useful to another researcher (if not for the subject matter, then certainly for your elegant design).

Research poster can be a little tricky, it may be easier to write about your research first or some people might find it easier to start with the layout. Practising how to write concise material is a useful exercise. If your information is well written, designing and presenting will come naturally. You don’t have to use complicated software to design your poster and can use the resources you have. Again, you are presenting your research and that’s the bulk of your poster. Make sure to follow the design rules of the conference and have your elevator pitch ready.


This article gives the views of the author and not necessarily the views the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.

Writing for Scholarly Publication: an Editor’s Perspective

by David Fox Librarian Emeritus
University of Saskatchewan

Not every manuscript submitted to a scholarly journal is a well-constructed, cogently written, polished work of prose. As Editor-in-Chief of Partnership: the Canadian Journal of Library and Information Practice and Research from 2011 to 2014, this writer evaluated more than 150 manuscripts of varying quality, and all of them required some editing or revision. This includes some of my own pieces for Partnership. I’m painfully aware that, as a writer, I’m just as inclined to slip-ups and omissions as anyone else. We sometimes seem to be blind to our own mistakes. That’s why we need editors. It takes many passes and many different eyeballs on a page to make it as clean as it should be.

When it comes to editing manuscripts, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, but with a bit of effort you can usually produce a pretty serviceable pigskin wallet – and that’s often good enough for publication. Manuscripts from first-time authors, authors with a limited command of English, and authors not familiar with the conventions of academic writing need more than the average amount of editorial work, but I’m proud to say that at Partnership we rarely rejected a manuscript due to deficiencies in the writing alone. If the author had something interesting and important to say, we worked with that author to make the article publishable. Faulty methodology is another matter. Editors can fix bad writing, but we can’t fix bad research.

Below are some tips on writing for submission to a scholarly journal based on my experience reading manuscripts at Partnership. A lot of this advice may seem obvious to readers of this blog, but many of the papers I reviewed overlooked some of these points. Journals are typically juggling a number of manuscripts simultaneously under tight timelines. Anything that interrupts or slows down work on a manuscript may delay its publication. Attention to the following suggestions may expedite acceptance and processing of a submission.

What to write and where to submit?
• Pick an appropriate topic. To justify publication, a manuscript must have something new and interesting to say to the target readership of the journal. At Partnership in recent years, the most frequently cited articles have dealt with the adaptation of new technologies, particularly social media applications, to library functions; development of new services, including services to specific communities or user populations; new scholarship and publishing models; and new approaches to traditional library competencies.
• Pick an appropriate journal for your topic. What audience are you trying to reach? Is your topic of wide, general interest or narrow and specialized? Read the “purpose and scope” notes associated with potential journals to determine whether your submission will be a good fit for the readership.
• Where possible (and it’s almost always possible), choose an open access journal. Remember that every time you publish behind a paywall, a kitten dies!
• Work must be original, not previously published, and not simultaneously submitted to another publication. If you are considering submitting something to a scholarly journal, don’t pre-post it to an open access repository or conference Web site. If an identical or similar version of your paper can be located via a Google search, then it has essentially already been published and will probably be rejected.

Pay attention to publisher’s guidelines
Journal publishers tend to be fairly strict about adherence to style guidelines. This is in order to promote consistency of presentation from article to article.
• Pay attention to your publication’s instructions for authors re. manuscript length, spacing, etc.
• Follow your publication’s guidelines for bibliographic style and citation format. If the publisher’s instructions call for APA style and you submit your paper in MLA, Chicago, or some other format, it will likely be sent back to you for revision, and you will lose time.

Writing
• Write with the reader in mind. Avoid jargon, colloquialisms, and unexplained acronyms (unless you’re sure the audience will understand the reference).
• Adhere to the conventions for scholarly writing:

-Cite your sources. Every fact, idea, opinion, or quotation borrowed from another author needs to be documented (MLA 165). The editor cannot do this for you.
-Write clear, precise, simple, and straightforward prose.
-Use formal English (What is Academic English?). Avoid conversational language, e.g., “great”. “Fun” is not an adjective!
-Write in the third person. Avoid the use of personal pronouns: I, my, you, your. Refer to yourself as “the author”, “this researcher”, etc.
-Avoid using contractions: won’t, doesn’t.
-Exercise caution when expressing opinions and outcomes: use “may”, rather than “is” unless completely certain of your claims.
-Unlike creative writing, the passive voice is often appropriate in academic prose.

• Master basic punctuation and grammar. Poor grammar and punctuation, although fixable, conveys a negative impression to the editor and will require more time and effort by the copyeditor. In reading manuscripts at Partnership, it was astonishing to find that many librarian authors do not seem to have a good grasp of the rudiments of punctuation. In future blog posts I will discuss the most common punctuation mistakes and how to avoid them. It’s important for librarian authors to master these basic skills. Insistence on following standard punctuation rules is not just pedantry. Good punctuation helps to convey meaning, to avoid confusion, and allows a manuscript to be read more quickly and efficiently.
• Avoid word repetition. Use a thesaurus!

Prior to submitting your manuscript…
• While working towards a submission deadline, make sure to leave time for quality control.
• Have one or more trusted colleagues read your paper for clarity and comprehension before submission. This is especially advisable if English is not the author’s first language. If your closest colleagues don’t understand what you’re trying to say, then the average reader certainly won’t.
• Have another colleague with a good eye for detail proofread your work for spelling accuracy, typos, and word omissions. Sometimes it’s difficult to see one’s own mistakes.
• Leave time for revisions based on your colleagues’ suggestions.

Revision
• Assume that you will be asked to revise your manuscript. Editors rarely accept a manuscript without asking for changes, and peer-reviewers almost always suggest revisions. Don’t be discouraged by constructive criticism.
• Do take seriously the comments of peer-reviewers as peer-review usually results in substantial improvements to a manuscript; however, reviewers of the same paper can sometimes have conflicting opinions, and some advice they give may be off the mark (Soule 14). A good editor will evaluate the fairness of reviews and decide which comments to share with the author, or recommend which comments the author should particularly focus on. Remember that ultimately you are responsible for the integrity and coherence of your own work. Make those recommended changes that seem appropriate and sensible, and let the editor decide whether your revisions are acceptable.

A writer’s best friends are a thesaurus, style guide, and punctuation and grammar manuals. Keep them within easy reach on your desktop (either physical or virtual) and consult them frequently!

Works Cited
MLA Style Manual and Guide to Scholarly Writing. 3rd ed. New York: Modern Language Association of America, 2008. Print.

Soule, Daniel P. J. , Lucy Whiteley, and Shona McIntosh, eds. Writing for Scholarly Journals: Publishing in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Glasgow: eSharp, 2007. Web. 6 March 2015. http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_41223_en.pdf

What is Academic English? The Open University, 2015. Web. 6 March 2015.
http://www2.open.ac.uk/students/skillsforstudy/what-is-academic-english.php

This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.