Friday, February 24, 2006

Publishing With A Poster

Publishing is one of the big barriers that face independent scholars and amateur scientists. In years past, people who didn’t have a Ph.D. or some other kind of institutional affiliation didn’t have a snowball’s chance of getting published in a respectable journal or presenting at a professional conference. The academic “old boys’ network” was tightly fenced off from the rest of hoi polloi. One can argue that this was partly to keep the nut-jobs at bay (every field seems to have them), but there is also something to be said for insular institutionalism as the true cause.

Today, however, the intrepid and persistent Guerrilla Scholar has many venues in which to present the results of good research. One that is frequently overlooked is the poster session.

I was working on lining up speakers for a conference of amateur scientists a few years ago when the Executive Director asked if the conference was going to have a poster session. I gave him a blank stare and told him I had never heard of a poster session and asked what it was. Then it was his turn to stare blankly. We had apparently encountered a cultural gulf between the world of his academic training (the sciences) and mine (the humanities). I had spent years in graduate school and had never even heard the term. Apparently it’s not a big thing in the humanities, although I’m told this is gradually starting to change.

If you go to a science fair and look at the big displays made of foam-core poster board with charts and explanations in neat, laser-printed type, that will give you some idea of what a poster session looks like. It’s just what it sounds like: a presentation in which you put forward your work and findings on one or two large poster boards that are hung in the display area of a Conference where attendees can view it at their leisure. If you feel awkward speaking in front of a group, or you won’t be able to attend because the conference is farther than your travel budget will allow, or if you’re just getting into a field, poster sessions are a great option. If you see a conference being held on a subject you’re working in, find out if they will have a poster session. Also look and see if there are “regional sessions” held in cities apart from the main conference. Sometimes these smaller gatherings are hungry for material and will accept a poster proposal from a newcomer or relative unknown. They might also lie outside the usual turf battles that can claim independent scholars and amateurs as casualties. If you can get on their program, they get a presentation, and you the presenter get a publication credit at a professional or academic conference.

To find out how to prepare a poster session, you should download the very excellent guide The Poster Session: A Guide for Preparation (.pdf format)written by Carol Waite Connor of the U.S. Geological Survey. This is a short, clearly written, brass-tacks level guide that will tell you in just a few pages how to write and prepare an outstanding poster presentation. Give it a try, and get some publications on your curriculum vita.

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