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Doctoral defense: ‘Poster, poster, on the wall; were you even there at all?’ - a mixed method research into the efficacy and perceptions of conference poster presentations


Nicholas Rowe’s doctoral thesis points out that although posters are by far the most prevalent form of conference presentation, they don’t actually work in a reliable way. The academic and scientific communities continue to present their conference posters, despite them attracting very little interest, being seen as ‘second-rate’, and having little tangible worth as an academic currency. His thesis lifts the lid on this under-researched phenomenon, and asks whether our conference activities really merit their multi-billion annual price tag, and whether we can (or should) take steps to gain a better return on our investments of time, effort and money?

Academic or scientific conferences are a global phenomenon, and poster presentation forms the most prevalent medium of scientific communication in this field. Gathering evidence to explore the way conference posters are used and appreciated across international academic, scientific and professional communities, the thesis establishes for the first time the way poster sessions have developed from small ‘come and talk about my work’ opportunities, to mass-displays of up to a thousand posters in one hall.

Mr. Rowe explains that this development may seem like a good thing, with more people being given access to new and cutting-edge information, as well as getting to meet the researchers in person and develop further knowledge and links, but that’s not how it actually works.

Although scant, the thesis identifies a growing shift in the literature from work that advised on and supported poster presentation, to writing that is more critical of its purpose and effectiveness. Through a survey and interview series, the objectives of presenting a poster can be seen firstly as educational (i.e. we want to share and discuss our work, and learn from the work of others), and secondly as a means of ‘networking’ or meeting potentially like-minded people.

However, Mr. Rowe points out that poster presenters often feel that posters do not have enough information, do not attract meaningful attention, and are not taken very seriously by their peer communities. Yet despite this, poster presentation at conferences still continues to grow year-on-year.

Questioning the effectiveness of poster sessions

By applying basic tests such as our ability to read a certain amount of text in a given time, or the numbers of posters we could visit in a standard session, the thesis shows that when faced with the amount of choice we experience at conferences, we can’t cope effectively with the volume of information, and so any ideas that we plan carefully or select specific work to attend and visit are flawed. Also, the theoretical processes behind information communication and knowledge development cannot take place without an effective dialogue between presenters and their audience. As the thesis shows that this does not and cannot predictably take place, the widespread belief that poster sessions are effective is questionable. But perhaps the most important observation is that our conference work reaches proportionally limited numbers of our conference audiences, and is seldom made meaningfully available to those outside the conference event – i.e. to our globally connected society.

In the academic community there is a conception that conference work is developed into full publications such as journal articles and books, but this is not the case. Recent figures show that over 60% of our conference work is never published, and the thesis shows that less than 1% of posters are published beyond an abstract or title mention. Against an estimated annual global expenditure of € 25.1 billion (£GB 22bn / $US 28.9bn), the cost of this ‘lost research’ falls in the region of € 7.6 billion (£GB 6.9bn / $US 8.7bn) … every year.

The thesis explains the growing dissatisfaction with posters through a ‘paradox of choice’, where when faced with more information than we can handle, we make fewer and worse choices. To some extent, this explains the low engagement and appreciation that is seen with posters at larger conference events. However, despite the negative perspectives of this thesis, the educational efficacy of posters is not a lost cause, and there are potential developments that can be used to improve our return on investment, and to raise our conference activities to form a genuine ‘academic currency’ that serves both individuals and the globally connected ASP community.

Information on the defense:

Nicholas Rowe will be defending his thesis ‘Poster, poster, on the wall; were you even there at all?’ - a mixed method research into the efficacy and perceptions of conference poster presentations with the permission of the Faculty of Education at the University of Lapland in auditorium Kaarina Hall on the 17th April 2019 at 12 noon. The Opponent is Professor Päivi Atjonen of the School of Education and Psychology, University of Eastern Finland. The Custos is Professor Satu Uusiautti of the Faculty of Education, University of Lapland.

Information on the doctoral candidate:

Nicholas Rowe is a trans-disciplinary educationalist, with interests in scientific communication and professional education/development. A dual fellow of the UK Higher Education Academy and Society for Education and Training, he is among the leading researchers in the field of academic/scientific conference presentation in the continuing education setting. Having spent 5 years as a full-time university lecturer in the UK, he moved to Finland in 2010 and has since run a specialist academic editing service for ESOL speakers. Rowe will be the 150th doctoral graduate from the Faculty of Education at University of Lapland.

Contact information:

Nicholas Rowe

Information on the publication:

Rowe Nicholas: ‘Poster, poster, on the wall; were you even there at all?’ - a mixed method research into the efficacy and perceptions of conference poster presentations. Rovaniemi: University of Lapland, 2019. Acta Electronica Universitatis Lapponiensis, ISSN 1796-6310

Permanent address of the e-dissertation: