Friday, July 05, 2013

Scientific Posters

I have a confession to make.  Posters are the method of scientific communication that I like the least.  I've just been preparing three right now, for presentation next week---two on synthetic biology and one on representation for electromechanical design.  The problem is really the logistics: design, production, transportation, and presentation.

Let us consider the poster's two main forms of competitor, the paper and the talk.
When I produce a paper, these four stages are:
  • Design: Assemble the document in LaTeX, a system extremely well adapted for this task, using figures built however I feel like it.
  • Production: Run LaTeX on the document, admire the beautiful PDF.
  • Transportation: Upload electronically to the publisher's site.
  • Presentation: The publisher does everything automatically, and the paper is disseminated to some fragment of the scientific community.

Talks are not quite so smooth, because I usually have to deal with PowerPoint.  I resisted this for a long time, and still use OpenOffice when I can.  The problem is that a lot of material from collaborators comes to me in PowerPoint form, or is explicitly required to be in PowerPoint by the US Government.  So I just have to put up with substandard editing software, giving me a workflow of:
  • Design: Curse the Beast That Dwelleth in Redmond as I wrestle with its Hideous Offspring.
  • Production: Flip into presentation mode and walk through to make sure nothing weird is happening with animations or videos.
  • Transportation: Get myself to the conference, bringing my computer and its precious, precious bits.  Leave a copy of the presentation accessible to myself via SSH, in case my computer self-destructs and I have to download it and try it on somebody else's machine.
  • Presentation: Stand up in front of a room full of scientists and talk to them, take a few questions, continue the interesting bit of discussion in the hallway after.

Posters are also very graphic heavy, and so they tend to end up in PowerPoint also, if only to ensure smooth transfer of images from existing slides to the poster design.  But that's only the beginning of the trouble.  My poster workflow is:
  • Design: PowerPoint was never intended to edit poster-sized images, and so it goes very slowly.  This interacts with its already iffy UI to result in lots of waiting for updates, discovering that event processing lags have resulted in PowerPoint changing the wrong object, undoing, trying again, etc.  It also really wants to resize text pasted in from smaller documents to fit the poster, turning some things into 80+ point font and leave others the same, in a pattern that I haven't entirely figured out yet.  Eventually, though, the beast is tamed, and I've got a PDF that PowerPoint isn't resizing down to 8.5x11 because it has decided I can't really have wanted A0 format.
  • Production: Print on a specialized piece of hardware for that is generally temperamental and poorly maintained, because it's not part of the daily workflow.  Then get a pair of scissors and trim the poster down to size because the size requirements of the poster session are always different from the width of the poster printer.  Or, like today, discover that the poster printer is down, everybody's taking the day off, and desperately search for an outside shop that can print my posters before my flight leaves.
  • Transportation: Roll the posters up, putting them in a tube if you can lay your hands on one, then carry giant delicate pieces of paper through taxis, airports, planes, and public transit while attempting to preserve them from crushing, rain, etc.  If something bad happens, you're out of luck.
  • Presentation: Give an interactive talk like you're singing a round: as people arrive and leave, you'll generally have a mixed audience who have all come in at different phases of the discussion and have missed different parts of the material.  It's essentially the following (please hum along, to the tune of "Row, row, row your boat"):

Primi:                    Secundus:             Tertio:
This is my abstract
Methods over here         This is my abstract
Here you see experiments  ...                   This is my abstract
Conclusions are so clear                        ...
Moreover, you're probably doing this in a crowded hall with dozens to hundreds of other posters all being presented simultaneously.  At the end of a good poster session, I'm always hoarse.

So posters are just much more of a hassle than the other forms, from A to Z. It does have its advantages, though, in that it's much more interactive than any of the other forms.

Now, dear readers, I'm sure that somebody is going to want to suggest that I could solve all my software problems by ditching Microsoft.  Let me head that off at the pass by saying that, much as I think Beamer and Prezi are awesome, Beamer just can't illustrate or animate worth a damn, and Prezi has some serious usability issues.  Don't talk to me about Keynote.  Network effects mean my world is going to be dominated by PowerPoint, with OpenOffice/LibreOffice the only hope of salvation.

But for now, I'll carry my precious cardboard tube and be thankful the production nightmare is over...
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