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Scientists make a new discovery: the big headline. But they’re debating whether to use it

A poster session at the American Geophysical Union conference. How can you absorb all that information?NASA Ames

Countless discoveries have been featured on posters displayed by researchers at scientific conventions. But there’s one discovery they have apparently never made: the banner headline.

Until now.

Mike Morrison, a young academic at Michigan State, has caused some buzz with his call for a better scientific poster. Instead of a daunting mass of words, charts, and graphs, the new design calls for a big “headline” in plain English and large type occupying a lot of space at the center, with columns on each side in smaller type offering more detailed information. A QR code also provides a link to further information online.

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But don’t think: “Ford to NYC: Drop Dead,” “Headless Body Found in Topless Bar,” or “Dewey Beats Truman.”

Think: “Glaucoma reduces optokinetic nystagmus,” or “The psoR gene affects pigmentation and growth in F. diplosiphon undergoing CCA.”

“Poster sessions,” in which scientists gather in a hotel ballroom to display their work on posters for other scientists in their field, are a staple of conferences, a kind of high-stakes adult science fair. But Morrison thinks the sessions aren’t doing a good enough job of helping scientists share their ideas.

“Scientists try to communicate tens of thousands of new findings to each other through posters per year,” Morrison, a doctoral student in psychology, said in an e-mail. “But their messages are strained through this old, cluttered poster template that they all use. It’s a bottleneck to knowledge sharing.”

He said he believed that “improving the scientific poster could accelerate the pace of human progress itself.”

In his vision, scientists stroll through poster sessions, easily spotting major findings on each poster, stopping for a conversation with the presenters if they’re interested, and then snapping a photo of the QR code to look up further information for later.

The idea has gained some attention and some fans. A cartoon YouTube video posted in March in which Morrison lays out his proposal had attracted more than 213,000 views as of Wednesday morning, including 5,100 likes, 100 dislikes, and more than 300 comments.

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The conversation is also bubbling on Twitter under the #betterposter hashtag, where a number of people have apparently become early adopters, posting pictures of their newfangled posters. Here are a few examples:

But not everybody is a fan. Some scientists say the new poster essentially doesn’t offer enough details.

Karl Kandler, a neurobiology professor at the University of Pittsburgh, said he saw the need to improve posters, but he felt Morrison was almost taking a “selling or advertising” approach. The purpose of the poster session is not to sell but to present data and “discuss it in depth, discuss it with your colleagues,” he said. “You go there to discuss your science to find the truth.”

Brendon Watson, a psychiatry professor at University of Michigan, said in an e-mail, “We have reproducibility problems in some parts of science and I think part of that is due to us missing the details in each other’s work and therefore not being able to replicate what we thought they did without understanding the details of the differences between our experiments and theirs.”

“The movement towards ‘sellable soundbites’ while quite literally pushing details off to the side seems like a move away from taking the time to understand the crucial details,” he said. “I worry it may emphasize the wrong approach to communicating one’s work — especially for people new to the field who have not themselves yet seen as many examples of the nuanced difficulties that can crop up.”

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Some have also had some fun at Morrison’s expense on Twitter, including one academic who envisioned an extreme version of the poster, suggesting it could be pared down to two words with a QR code:

Morrison’s response to skeptics is that “research suggest that even experts prefer plain language over jargon. . . . Nobody is going to walk away with the entire content of your poster memorized. They’re going to mentally convert it into a key takeaway that they actually remember. So you’re kind of doing that work for them up front, so they can quickly digest your poster and move on to the 49 other posters they also need to learn in that hour.”

“Please, try it before you knock it. The positive reactions from attendees has converted many skeptics. And, as a designer, I guarantee that you’ll at least learn something from the experience. Namely, that less is very often more,” he said.