Oddly Shaped Pegs

An inquiry into the Nature and Causes of Stuff

Je m’en (af)fiche

with 4 comments

Tucked neatly between (US) Independence Day and (French) Bastille Day this year was YESS, a joint French-US workshop for “young scientists and engineers”, held at the French embassy. This year’s theme was Identity Management, which largely meant biometrics, database privacy and anonymous communication. I wasn’t sure from the initial invitation how serious the whole thing was (note to organizers: explicit mention of freely flowing champagne in a workshop invitation is appealing, but a little suspicious), but it turned out to be a great workshop.

Ok, almost great. There were a number of program/department overviews by French and US officials, some of which made me feel like Bill Gasarch did in this picture. (To the speakers’ credit, no one made jokes about freedom fries even though fries were served in the Embassy cafeteria.) But the scientific talks were interesting, and I got to meet a cross-section of French researchers I don’t normally interact with. I also learned a lot about Tor and it’s role in Iran from Roger Dingledine.

I walked away from “YESS” with a few distinct impressions.

  • It is extremely difficult to give a program or departmental overview that is fun to listen to.
  • The French are a few years into the process of switching to a competitive, proposal-driven mode of funding research.
  • A significant fraction of the biometrics/security community read the fuzzy extractor papers and got the point (in a nutshell: it is possible to be rigorous about the security properties of biometric systems). Unfortunately, that fraction is a lot less than 1.
  • Making scientific posters is a questionable use of anyone’s time.

The first point is self-explanatory, I’ll save the second for a future discussion and I haven’t figured out what to make of the third.

But the posters! Called post-ère in French (why not affiche? Nobody knew.), the scientific poster lies somewhere between talk slides and a regular written article. In its ideal form it provides both a quick overall impression of a work, for the casual passer-by, and more in-depth explanations, for the viewer with more time and patience. In practice, it is  hacked together in a hurry and provides neither. For a typical failure, see my own feeble attempt here.

However, the real problem with posters is that even the good ones don’t seem to get read. It is almost always more compelling to listen to a bad talk than to read a good poster. What gives? By all rights, a poster session should be more interesting than a typical session of talks since you can allocate your time and attention more flexibly. But it doesn’t work — posters just don’t seem to make people care.

What is the best format for allowing everyone to get a short overviews of all the papers, and also have the option of learning more about a given paper? Is the web pushing science into a post-post-ère era? Or do I just need to learn to read?

I am troubled by this since the IPAM workshop I’m co-organizing will have time for a relatively small number of talks, but we want to give all attendees a chance to present their ideas. The initial plan was to have a poster session, but I am having my doubts. Maybe a rump session with many five-minute talks is more effective, or  perhaps a combination of the two (five-minute poster ads)?

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Written by adamdsmith

July 29, 2009 at 9:36 pm

Posted in Conferences

4 Responses

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  1. Posters are boring but I think they are effective at introducing people to what others are doing.

    For example, at the annual NSF Cybertrust meeting there is a poster session. It is easy and relatively painless to walk through the room and find the few posters of interest. After that, the posters themselves aren’t very useful but you can talk to the researchers about their work.

    Maybe the issue is the amount of time spent making the poster vs. its usefulness. It would be almost as efficient to have a poster with title/abstract only (though I do think that some minimal graphics are helpful).

    jonkatz

    July 30, 2009 at 9:02 am

  2. I’d vote for a lively rump session over a poster session. While posters do have a place, it’s not in a poster session — it’s as something to leave up in the hallway to spark discussion later. Rump sessions in contrast if done right (e.g. CRYPTO) can be a significant way to announce new results and create community.

    David Molnar

    July 30, 2009 at 3:37 pm

  3. One more interesting discovery while making my poster: there is a good adaptation of the latex beamer package for making posters. You can download it and read instructions here:
    http://www.shawnlankton.com/2008/06/latex-beamer-poster-theme-and-template/

    adamdsmith

    August 11, 2009 at 2:46 pm

  4. People with more poster-session experience than me say that the key to a good poster session is free food. Also, getting *everybody* to present a poster (not just the folks whom we couldn’t fit into the main program) increases the average quality and hence the audience’s interest.

    Adam

    adamdsmith

    August 11, 2009 at 2:53 pm


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