Why we should get rid of poster prizes at conferences

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Picture by ebbandflowphotography via flickr.

It’s that time of year again. Last week the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced the nominees for this years’ Academy Awards. Filmmakers and filmlovers (well, and also critics, fashonistas and gossip columnists) are on the edge of their seats: Who will win the Oscars this year? And as we wait for March 2nd – what better time to discuss awards of a different kind: poster prizes at conferences?

Poster prizes are a regular feature at many conferences. Poster prizes are usually either a moderately large sum of money (e.g. enough to go to a conference), or maybe a year-long subscription to a journal, or some gadget, like an iPod, which are awarded to the person (or people) who have the most interesting and well-presented poster. A small jury, consisting of established senior scientists, selects the winning posters, and the winner gets to be in the limelight of the meeting for about 30 seconds while he/she collects the prize. Often, winners are also given a short slot to talk about the results on the poster. So, really, you might say, poster prizes are great. It’s a just reward for the work that’s been done, and it may even spark some scientific discourse, because conference attendees will discuss the poster that got awarded.

But there’s a catch:

– First, poster prizes are subjective. Most juries are small, and conferences are big, so the jury might not even have time to look at your poster properly, if they didn’t shortlist it before, because it sounded interesting. Furthermore, the members of the jury might be unintentionally biased, based on their own scientific interests.

– Second,  – and I think this part is more fundamentally wrong – if one person (or a few people, assuming shared or multiple prizes) wins the poster prize, then all the others do not. Phrased differently, everybody who didn’t win, is a loser. That’s the nature of competition. And honestly, claims by the jury that “everybody should consider themselves a winner. We have seen so many amazing posters at this meeting. It was such a tough choice” normally does not soften the blow. Molecular biology (the field I know best) is really competitive anyway. There’s the whole publish-or-perish thing, there’s a scramble to obtain funding and fellowships from decreasing science budgets, and then later to get a secure (eg tenured) position. Do we really need a yet another way of making science even more competitive? *

– Finally, awarding poster prizes sends out the wrong message, especially to young researchers. Basically, it supports “the Heroic Myth in Science”, because it doesn’t appreciate that the results on a poster are often not just results on a poster, they are the accumulation of wise decisions, team work, luck and – last, but not least, – hard work. Just to give you an example: In Hungary, there is a national student competition, and whether or not you win a prize there, will influence your chances of a state PhD fellowship. So, it’s in the interest of a PI to ensure that students win prizes, and this has shaped the kind of project they will give to a student. A mentor once told me: “You know, when I first started my own lab, I’d give the best and most promising undergrad students the most challenging projects, where they could learn most and develop skills that are vital for a career in science, such as how to cope with failures, or how to figure out the fine line between persistence and “it’s time to change the course of this project”. Now, I don’t do that any more. Now I give the best students a ready-made project, where they only need to do the finishing touches, the final measurements, and it’s a story that we call sell. They still do hard work, but they’re not part of the trial and error, which goes into the conception of a project, both intellectually and practically.” I think, these are aspects that no jury can comprehensively or fairly evaluate: when there’s great data on a poster, does that mean the author was amazing or lucky or part of a great team? Did they have substantial data to build upon or did they start from scratch?

Before I finish, let me just say, that I’ve been on both the “winning” and the “losing” side of poster prizes. I’ve happily celebrated with friends who’ve won poster prizes. I understand the warm feeling it gives you, when some big shots in your field recognises your work. Nevertheless, I think poster prizes should be abolished. I understand that conference organizers think poster prizes are a great incentive to attendees. I understand the concept of wanting to “award” people’s hard work. But couldn’t the money be spent more wisely, so that really everyone wins? How about using it to invite a particularly outstanding speaker? Using it to arrange a section for flash talk (1-minute presentitions of ALL posters), or to sponsor an interactive workshop, or a “cheese and wine” poster session that might loosen tongues and result in a bit more discussion? Or to funnel that money into a travel grant?

Bottom line: I think we should leave awards to the film industry, and encourage networking and discussion without poster prizes. But then again, maybe I’ll speak differently when they’ll start handing out little naked men as poster prizes.

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* You might say that I shouldn’t think of poster prizes as a competition, it’s a reward with winners only, and no losers. Well, I’ve heard too many: “Oh, I really don’t get why s/he [sometimes accompanied by “from my lab/from the neighbour lab”] won the prize. Like, s/he the work totally not original, most of it was done by this other person in his/her lab. Seriously, s/he only works a 9-to-5, but s/he was totally flirting with a member of the jury when they came around”. I’m pretty sure that’s not the sound a “I’m-a-winner-too” makes.

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One thought on “Why we should get rid of poster prizes at conferences

  1. article is quite interesting and hopefully true happiness rays began to warm the hearts of us all, when we can share it with sincerity. Greetings from Gede Prama 🙂

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