MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
Many of us have made a science poster, probably as a kid. School science fair - you got some poster boards, slapped on a title, your experimental methods, the results. Well, some people still make these posters. In the world of professional science, posters are a huge deal. NPR's Nell Greenfieldboyce introduces us to one scientist who says they are also in desperate need of a makeover.
NELL GREENFIELDBOYCE, BYLINE: Mike Morrison hardly looks like a revolutionary. He's wearing a dark suit. But we're about to enter a world of conformity that hasn't changed in decades, maybe a century. And in there, his vision seems radical.
MIKE MORRISON: We are about to walk into a room full of 100 scientific posters where researchers are trying to display their findings on a big poster board.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He's a PhD student in psychology at Michigan State University. So we met at the annual meeting of the Association for Psychological Science. Really, though, we could've gone to any big science conference. And they're happening all the time. The Society for Neuroscience alone draws around 30,000 people. Then there's the American Geophysical Union, the American Chemical Society. The list goes on and on. They all have poster sessions.
MORRISON: A poster session ideally is this incredibly fertile ground for creative insight. You're walking into a room completely open-minded and ready to hear and read findings around stuff that you didn't even study before. And what it should do is transmit. If there are 50 posters here, it should transmit 50 new insights into your brain.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: He says the reality is not like that. We walk through the posters.
MORRISON: Imagine that you're driving down the highway, and you see billboards. But instead of, like, an image and a catchy phrase, there's, like, paragraphs of text all over the billboards. That's what we're seeing. We're walking through a room full of billboards with paragraphs of text all over them.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: It's impossible to take in unless you stop in front of a poster to read it. But there are so many posters, so you keep moving.
MORRISON: It's mostly noise. You're just skimming desperately, and you're going to miss a lot as you walk by.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Morrison says this is more than just a bummer for scientists. He says insights that could help humanity are buried in a jumbled mess that keeps them from being noticed.
MORRISON: So whatever you care about - whether it's, like, exploring the universe sooner or curing a disease that your friend has - it's happening slower right now than it should because we have all these inefficient systems for disseminating knowledge among scientists. I think that people assume that science is progressing as fast as it can, and it's not.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This really bugs Morrison. So a couple months ago, he tweeted out a little video. It's a cartoon he made about the nightmare that is the scientific poster session. In it, he proposed a new poster design. It looks clean, almost empty. The main research finding is written right in the middle in plain language and big letters. There's a code underneath you can scan with a cellphone to get a link to the details of the study.
This video went viral, and now his design is popping up all over the place. In fact, across a sea of posters, I spot one in this very room.
Did you plant this one?
KENDRA POQUET: Hello, I'm Kendra Poquet (ph), and I'm from Cal State Fullerton.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Her research is on eyewitness testimony. Her poster says in big letters, jurors overwhelmingly vote not guilty when an eyewitness is inconsistent in identification, regardless of the actual reliability of that identification.
POQUET: Everyone's talking about this new poster format. They call it poster 2.0. And there's a little video that I watched, and it just made sense.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: This guy made this video.
POQUET: Oh, my God. You did? That's (laughter) - oh, my God. That's so funny. Yeah, I'm all about it. I was so nervous to use it at first because I'm a undergrad. So I'm like, I don't want people to, like, think, what is she doing? But I've gotten so much good feedback on it. I'm, like - I'm totally supportive of it (laughter).
GREENFIELDBOYCE: So you worry that people would think it looked unprofessional or something like that.
POQUET: Yeah, or, you know, you see all the posters look the same, in the same format, you know? I'd - but it seems like everyone's seen the video. It's like, so many people are like, oh, I wanted to try it. Oh, I'm so glad you did. Now I'm going to do it next time.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: Clearly, Morrison's idea has struck a nerve. On Twitter, scientists have been debating its merits and sharing photos of their own rejiggered posters.
Morrison is now working on experiments to study different designs by doing things like tracking people's eyes. In the meantime, he did what any scientist would do. He created a poster about this new poster.
MORRISON: In the middle, it just says, this poster could communicate findings more quickly.
GREENFIELDBOYCE: And he presented it here at a poster session. Nell Greenfieldboyce, NPR News.
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