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This image shows a young person in a tie, pointing to a poster with a bar graph and text. The person is next to a confused looking woman.

So You’re Going to Judge a Poster Competition…

Spring is the season not just for The Pollening, but also for events like elementary school science fairs and graduate student research symposia.

Last week, I talked with a group of PhD students about scientific posters. One of them was organizing a poster competition and asked a question about judging criteria. Given the season, I thought I’d share my answer, and related thoughts, for other would-be poster judges in the crowd.

First, a disclaimer.

These are my personal opinions, completely untethered from the context of a single, specific event. If you are judging a poster competition, you should direct any questions to the event organizers. Organizers should also share judging guidelines with all competitors well in advance of the event.

OK, on to the Q&A…

What makes a poster “good”?

I think the Poster Buzz Poster Checklist is a concise and decent place to start.*

The original question I was asked: Should I just judge the poster itself, or should I also consider any oral presentation or discussion that happens at the poster?

This prompted some philosophical pondering on my part. What is a poster? As a document, a (good) poster is pretty similar to an infographic or graphical abstract. What distinguishes these three products is context: an infographic is meant to be read on its own, a graphical abstract is meant to accompany a journal article, and an academic poster is meant to be displayed behind the creator, who is waiting to talk about it. So, long story short, I think what’s said at a poster is part of the judge-able experience.

Should I expect the poster presenter to have a canned speech or should I ask them a question or…?

I’m not a fan of scripted poster speeches. The poster is there to give an overview of the study…the presenter is there to do things only a live human can do, like answer questions and engage in discussion.

If a competitor has a speech ready to recite, I think it it speaks to preparation, but it doesn’t really say anything about the quality of the project or the science.

So, my recommendation is that judges ask questions, rather than simply saying, “Tell me about your poster.”

I think it’s probably easiest to come up with questions if the poster is at one of the ends of the quality spectrum:

  • If the poster is great, it should inspire interest and excitement. Questions like, “Where did you get this idea?!” or “What are your next steps with this work?” should, hopefully, come to mind pretty organically.
  • If the poster is terrible, with clear errors or holes in the work, you’re probably going to have some WTF questions (phrased in a delicate and constructive way, of course**).

But, a lot of posters, even at the professional level, fall somewhere in the middle…not great, not terrible. You’re not really motivated to read the paragraphs of text to figure out what’s going on, or you can’t really figure out what the takeaway is, or the takeaway is ho-hum. In that case, you may have to resort to some stock questions like:

  • If someone were to remember only one thing about your study, what would you want that to be?
  • How might someone use what you learned in your study to make the world a better place?
  • If someone gave you the time and money to do so, what kind of research would you want to do to follow up on this study?

I think questions like these allow you to assess a presenter’s depth of understanding and thought, as well as inspire their future work.

What questions do you have about creating or judging scientific posters? Drop them in the comments below, or join us for the next Office Hour!

*Regarding Section 3, on readability, you’re not going to be able to determine font sizes on a printed poster. It’s easier to judge whether all text is readable from at least 6 feet away and that more important text (e.g., title, subtitles, key takeaways) is larger than less important text.

**Seriously, don’t be a jackass. Your role is not to demonstrate your own brilliance or stump the presenter. Your role is to assess the quality of the work and to encourage presenters’ continued growth as scientists.

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