Paper Or Poster Session At ACRL: Making The Choice

Given a choice between preparing and submitting a proposal for a contributed paper or a poster session at ACRL’s 2011(15th) national conference, which do you think most academic librarians would choose. I need less than 2 seconds to think about this one. It’s the paper.

When it comes to ACRL’s national conference my take is that most academic librarians will prefer to submit a proposal for a contributed paper. This post is inspired by two things. First, like me, you’ve probably been thinking about the 2011 conference and potential ideas to turn into proposals. That means considering whether the idea works best as a paper or panel, or perhaps a Cyber Zed Shed presentation – or even a poster. Second, I enjoyed reading Female Science Professor’s Chronicle essay about the pros and cons of paper presentations and posters for scientists. I’m hardly familiar with scientific conferences, but I gather from the essay that papers and posters are thought of quite differently from the ACRL conference. For the scientist it seems that paper and poster are on near equal footing. For academic librarians, the posters are akin to a runner-up prize. I’d like to see that change.

Having had papers, panels and one poster accepted at ACRL here are some thoughts on the relative merits and challenges of each, using FSP’s framework for the comparison.

Stress Level:This one goes to the contributed paper. If you are fortunate enough to get it accepted (and more will this year because each session will now have three – not two – paper presentations – but each gets less time), then you need to write up a paper on a deadline. Presenting a poster is fairly informal; little preparation for the actual poster session is needed. The same cannot be said for a formal paper presentation.

Work Level: Once you have the basic idea for the poster worked out, and you know what’s going on it, the poster presents a reasonable amount of work – and let’s face it – you can put as much or as little effort into it as you like. We’ve all seen some pretty ratty posters. Then again, I’ve seen some posters where the reaction is “Damn, how did they do that?”. It’s that good. I took the middle road, and used to create my poster. That made it even less work – and they shipped the thing right to my hotel. You don’t even have to schlep a poster through the airport anymore. You can’t really fake the paper. Not only do you have to write it, but if you haven’t put the work into it you’ll look like an ass at the presentation. No librarian wants to look like an ass. This round goes to the paper.

DIfficulty Level: Putting together a good poster is not easy. Compared to a paper the constraints are much greater. With limited space, what do you choose to include and omit. That’s the hard part – and getting it to fit and look good. Sure, the paper presents some of the same challenges, but we all know few folks are ever going to read the paper. If you slack a bit on it no ones going to raise a fuss. But a lot is riding on the poster’s organization and appearance. If it’s lousy you can pretty much forget anyone coming over to talk to you. I’m going with the poster on this one.

Prestige Level: Hands down – the paper. Just consider the acceptance rate as a factor. Most of the posters are the rejected papers being recycled as poster presentations. But you can be different. Make the poster session your first choice.

Fun Level: Hands down – the poster. At ACRL 15th each paper presenter will get all of 12 minutes to present – and then 8 minutes for Q & A. All the hard work will be over in a flash, but you will be able to add a nice notch to your CV. With a poster you get the hold the floor for nearly an hour. Paper sessions can be pretty stodgy and formal. Over in the poster session area it’s a good time with lots of informal conversation. People are walking around doing their people watching. Yes, you can add the poster session to your CV, but it just won’t carry the same weight. I’m not saying that’s right. It’s just the way it is.

Let me just throw out an idea here. What if ACRL offered a version of early admissions for the conference. That is, you could submit a poster session proposal that would be given priority consideration, and by doing so you would agree not to submit the same proposal as a contributed paper. That would probably reduce the number of paper proposals and perhaps increase the quality of what is contributed because only those who felt they had a very strong shot would be likely to submit while those less certain of their chances would go for the more sure thing – the poster session. But does that then relegate the poster to lower status. Well, I think it already is lower status at our conference because the general deal is that many rejected papers become the posters. The only way we could boost the status of the poster session would be to reduce the number accepted. If there were only 50 slots for posters instead of 150, the acceptance rate would be far lower and it would be considered more on par with getting a paper accepted. Without data I can’t say for sure, but perhaps that is the case with science conferences.

So what will it be? A contributed paper or a poster session? Personally, I prefer the panel session. I think it offer a nice balance between the paper and the poster in terms of prestige, pressure, difficulty (not so much if you choose the right people) and fun. Whichever option you choose, good luck with your proposal.