Scientific posters are a common type of genre created by researchers in science and engineering-related fields to communicate information about a study usually to other experts.
As a student, you may be assigned a scientific poster in a technical communication or science writing course or in a class that focuses on writing in your discipline.
Scientific posters give readers a ‘visual overview’ of a particular project. In contrast to primarily text-based documents like research or lab reports, posters are visual-dominant. That is, they rely primarily on visuals—illustrations and drawings, graphics such as charts and bar graphs, photographs, and design features like use of color and typography—to convey information.
Posters may differ in terms of content, design, and organizational structure depending upon the discipline. Before creating your poster, look at examples from researchers in your area of study to ensure that you follow the appropriate conventions for your field. This article gives an overview of this genre, offers guidelines for creating effective scientific posters, and includes two example posters.
Display Venues for Scientific Posters
Scientific posters are usually displayed during professional conferences, formal events in which researchers in a particular discipline gather to share and discuss their work with each other as well as network and socialize. Posters are often shown in a prominent area such as an exhibition hall. ‘Poster sessions’ held during the conference allow poster creators to interact with their readers and engage in one-on-one and/or small group discussions about the poster’s content and answer questions. In addition to the more formal events routinely held during a conference, these sessions offer another venue for attendees to learn about the work of their peers, meet colleagues with similar interests, and forge new collaborations.
While many posters are created for professional conferences, researchers on college campuses might also create a poster to showcase a particular project. For instance, a biology professor may want to publicize the work they and their graduate students are conducting in their lab. In this case, the professor and their students might display the poster in the hallway outside of the lab or in another public forum in the department or on campus. Unlike at a professional conference, in this scenario the professor and their students will want to assume that many of their readers will not be as knowledgeable as readers attending a conference about the subject matter. Some readers may be the professor’s colleagues who specialize in another area, others may be faculty in other disciplines, still others may be students. The professor and their students will want to carefully consider their audience in adapting their information so that readers who are not subject matter experts will understand the project and find it interesting (see Audience).
Keep in mind that if you display your poster at a professional conference, you will have the opportunity to interact with many of your readers—but you will not be able to interact with all of them. Consequently, your poster needs to be able to ‘stand-alone.’ That is, the information in your poster must be immediately understandable to your intended readers without any additional information.
Organizing Your Poster
This section provides guidelines for organizing the main sections of a scientific poster. Much like research reports, scientific posters often follow what is known as the IMRaD format (Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, and Discussion) as explained below.
Title: describe the research project briefly and concisely using a short phrase that forecasts what the research study is about. In some disciplines, the title might highlight one or two major research findings of the study. The title should be no more than two lines.
Author Name(s) and Affiliation(s): Include the name of each author on the line underneath the title. Include each author’s institutional or organizational affiliation on the next line. If more than one author has the same affiliation, you only need to list the institution or organization once. Use superscript numbers at the end of each author’s name to indicate the same affiliation (see University Apiary).
Introduction: introduce the specific research question, explain why the question is important, conduct a very short literature review, and state the purpose of the study.
Note: Include your list of references in a separate section (see References). In some disciplines it is conventional to include in-text citations in the Introduction (and the Discussion), while in other disciplines only the list of references is included. It may also be conventional in some disciplines to include a separate section before or after the Introduction entitled ‘Study Objective’ or ‘Study Design,’ a one to two line phrase or sentence that states the overall purpose of the project. You might also use a bulleted list to include multiple study objectives.
The literature review is a fundamental component of most scientific research reports. The purpose is two-fold:
- Explain how the current research project fits in with what is currently known in the field by summarizing and citing the most relevant research conducted to date, and
- Outline the gap in scientific knowledge that the current project addresses.
In the literature review of a research report you should discuss the published, peer-reviewed studies that other researchers have already conducted related to your research question or topic. Then explain how your project addresses what is still not known about the research question or topic.
As you’ve probably guessed, posters have a very limited amount of space. Thus, you will not be able to include a full literature review. This means you will need to carefully select and discuss the most relevant sources to frame your project. Look at a few sample posters in your field to determine how the literature review is conducted as well as how many sources tend to be included.
Materials and Methods: explain the methodology used to conduct the research as well as the materials used. This section should explain:
- What you did to conduct your research project, and
- How you did
For example, let’s say you interviewed 100 college students about their exercise habits. The previous statement explains what you did—you interviewed 100 college students about their exercise habits. But you also need to explain how you did this:
- What questions did you ask during the interview?
- How did you conduct the interviews? Did you use an online survey or did you talk to the students in person? (Were the interviews one-on-one, or did you conduct small focus groups?)
- How did you recruit the students to participate?
- Did you interview students from all years in school or just freshmen or just sophomores, for instance? How did you decide which groups of students to interview?
In a research report, you would be to be very specific about your materials and methodology. Researchers in your field want to know detailed information about your materials and methods to ensure that your research approach is sound. In a research report, you would need to provide enough detail that your readers could repeat the study. In your poster, however, you won’t have the space to provide this level of detail. Much like in the Introduction, you’ll need to decide what your audience most needs to know about your methods (see Audience), and then streamline that information. Use visuals, if possible, to show key features of your methodology.
Note: In some disciplines this section may be referred to as ‘Methods’ or ‘Study Design.’
Results: report the results/major findings of your research project. Show the results using visuals—charts, graphs, maps, drawings, photographs. Use captions to briefly explain your visuals and to tell your readers what information is important in each of your visuals. The Results is usually the longest section of a scientific poster.
Discussion: explain and interpret the results/major findings. As the title of this section suggests, discuss how the findings support and/or refute similar and/or related studies in the field. Forecast the next steps for research in the field. What should future research on this topic focus on?
Acknowledgements: many science and engineering research projects receive grant funding. List any organizations that provided funding for the project and include the grant number. This section can also be used to acknowledge other project contributors and/or advisors. Students often use this section to acknowledge their faculty advisor here.
References: include full citation information for all of your sources. Cite references in the citation style used in your field. APA (American Psychological Association) is commonly used in the social sciences, and CSE (Council of Science Editors) is commonly used in scientific disciplines. Check with your professor, advisor, or another professional working in your field to determine the correct style.
Writing and Designing Your Poster
As previously mentioned, space on a poster is limited—very limited. Thus you will need to make strategic decisions about what information (text and images) to include and how to organize this information in each section.
Posters should aim to show, not tell. Regardless of where your poster is displayed—the exhibit hall of a conference or in the hallway by your lab—your readers will look over your poster very quickly. In fact, they’ll probably just skim over it, looking for information that interests them. Review the guidelines in this section to make strong writing decisions that engage your audience, engender interest in your project, and guide your readers through your main points.
Before creating your poster, carefully analyze your audience by considering the following questions:
- What do your readers already know about the topic or research question?
- (equally important) What do they not know?
- What information do they care about, and what details will you need to provide?
Writing for Expert Readers
As mentioned earlier, scientific posters are often created for expert readers—that is, colleagues and peers in your field. When communicating with other people in your discipline, you can generally assume that they will have a high level of knowledge and interest in the topic. You’ll be able to use technical terms specific to your field in your poster without defining these terms or explaining why they’re important. You also don’t need to provide as much ‘background’ or contextual information about the topic as you would for non-expert readers because expert readers are probably already familiar with this information.
Expert readers have very different informational needs than non-expert readers. Researchers in your field will generally be most interested in the Results and Discussion sections of your poster. They’ll want to know what you found, how these findings contribute to what is already known and accepted in the field, and where future research in the field may be headed.
Writing for Non-expert Readers
On the other hand, when you’re creating a poster for readers who are non-experts in your field or the specific research question, you’ll need to consider 1) why people who are not in your field or familiar with the research question might find your project interesting and 2) what aspects of your project they might want to know about.
Generally speaking, non-experts are not interested in technical details. They don’t need to know as much about your methodology because unlike expert readers, they probably won’t be critiquing your research approach to ensure that your approach was scientifically valid. They care less about references and the specific details of studies that other researchers are conducting in your field. They also don’t care or need to know about specific details related to your findings. They do, however and unlike expert readers, need more background and contextual information about the topic. They may not have much knowledge about the topic or know why it’s important—the kind of stuff that expert readers would already know. Non-experts are generally more interested in scientific research projects from a ‘big picture’ perspective—that is, how the topic might affect them either personally or on a broader, societal level.
To illustrate, let’s use our previous example of the biology professor and their students. Before creating their poster, the professor and their students will need to carefully assess the reasons that faculty and students in other disciplines might find their work interesting, and what these readers might want to know about it. Let’s say the group is studying algae blooms, and let’s say certain types of algae blooms are increasing as global temperature levels rise. Expert readers, other researchers in the biology professor’s field, are interested in the specific details of their study—details about how the study was conducted, the particular strain of algae used, how the strain reacted to precise temperature fluctuations in differing water conditions in different geographic region, for instance.
Non-expert readers probably don’t need to know the properties of the strain of algae investigated or the detailed measurements that were collected at the study sites or the range in temperature fluctuations that were observed. But, let’s say the geographic regions under study are nearby and increasing algae growth of this particular strain might adversely affect local water quality. Non-experts living in the area might want to know about this. Thus the professor and their students might frame the information in their poster from this perspective. Another option might be to relate the project to the larger societal issue of global warming. Either way, the group will need to broaden their focus as well as make assumptions about what their non-expert readers might be interested in learning about in terms of how it affects them.
The professor and their students will also need to simplify the information they provide including any field-specific terminology. They’ll need to decide if their readers need to know any technical terms or if they can just use everyday words and phrases. Let’s say the professor and their students are studying a strain of algae that is particularly invasive and is posing serious local water quality problems. In this case, the group may decide to use the technical term because the entire poster is about this algae strain and/or readers are likely to encounter more information about the strain in the future. At the same time, they may choose to not give details about other strains that they mention but which are not the main focus of the study.
In deciding whether to use technical terms and concepts when communicating with non-experts, determine if non-experts readers need to know the term or concept in order to achieve your purpose (see Purpose) as you may be able to simplify this information. If you provide too much technical detail, you run the risk of loosing the attention of your non-expert audience. If you decide you must use the technical term, define it using everyday words and phrases. You might also provide an example that compares the term or concept to something that the audience is already familiar with.
A Few Additional Points about Audience…
Expert and non-expert readers differ primarily in terms of their level of knowledge about a particular topic. Someone who is an expert in one communicative context will not be an expert in a different communicative context. For example, the biology professor is an expert reader when reviewing information in their field of study—specifically, algae blooms and water quality. They are a non-expert reader when reviewing information in other areas of biology that they are less knowledgeable about as well as other scientific fields such as zoology or geology. They will need more background info about research projects in areas they are unfamiliar with and field-specific terms will need to be defined for them.
Non-expert readers are a very broad audience and can encompass a wide range of knowledge levels about the particular topic at hand. Some non-expert audiences will be more knowledgeable than others about a particular topic. Thus, you will always still need to assess your readers as a group and make assumptions about what you think they already know, what they don’t know, and what information they care about.