Anyone who has spent time in academia or attended a scientific conference has seen them — the big plastic-laminated posters that are an indispensable element of science communication.
"Posters are a mass of good information," says Bruce Caron, a social anthropologist and the founder and executive director of the New Media Studio, a nonprofit that uses emerging multimedia technologies to explore the human environment. "They are an entire website, blog or Powerpoint put together on one page by people who are actively involved in research. They're a succinct representation of the most current information available."
Science posters are produced in great numbers. James Frew, a professor of geo-informatics at the University of California, Santa Barbara, calculates that roughly 250,000 posters are presented at academic professional meetings each year in the U.S. alone, representing some 4,000 person-years of production work. A single large academic meeting may have up to 10,000 posters.
But for all that work, the lifespan of the typical science poster is not much longer than that of a housefly, Caron says: "They are printed at the last minute, carried to the conference, presented for a few hours and then thrown away or put up on a back wall of a lab somewhere."
After a January poster event at a meeting of the Federation of Earth Science Information Partners, a group that seeks to improve access to, and uses of, Earth-science data, Caron had a realization. "Poster sessions are obligatory for many disciplines, but the inherent value of a poster is poorly served by a poster event," he says. "I thought we should capture the posters as PDF files, pop them into an archive, capture the abstract, add key words to make them easier to find, and make them available for people to see."
He presented the idea to Josh Greenberg, program manager at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which has funded digital libraries and other projects related to the storage and accessibility of digital information.
"We started talking about how posters have greater value the more visible they are — particularly in a global sense," he recalls. "Say you're an ocean scientist in Africa and you can't make it to the annual American Geophysical Union meeting [one of the largest scientific conferences in the U.S.]. A searchable online database would allow you to browse the poster session and maybe find something valuable that you would not otherwise see."
In April, the Sloan Foundation provided grant funding for a pilot project called Skolr. The unusual spelling of what would be pronounced "scholar," Caron explains, is intended to enhance visibility to Web search engines. The program is being built using open-source software and will be field-tested at the FESIP meeting this summer. The project is receiving support from the New Media Studio, as well as the Carsey-Wolf Center for media studies at UCSB and DigitalOcean, a software platform designed to help scientists work more effectively together and with educators and policy makers.
It will work simply. At registration, presenters will be given a Web URL for poster registration. They'll then sign up, enter their poster abstract, the title, and the names of the authors and upload the poster as a PDF. Some keyword tagging will be added to enhance searchability, and the uploaded data will complement the physical display of the posters for that meeting. Posters captured by the system will be arranged by collection, associated with particular meetings.
Caron sees several benefits.
"It fits in to supporting digital organizations and other organizations with a social-media platform that allows people to share what they couldn't share before," he says. "It adds value to the meeting and to the hosting organization. It makes the posters easier to find, so the presenter gets more interest. Then you take that public, and that meeting has more value for the academy because you're exposing a tableau of current research that was obscured before."
Then there are the opportunities for enhancing interdisciplinary collaboration, a particular interest in the Earth sciences.
"What if there were a hundred meetings of various disciplines that all contributed posters to a searchable collection?" Caron posits. "You could start finding the crosscutting research connections between disciplines, even though people aren't in the same room, at the same meeting, or even in the same area of research. You can imagine an ocean-science researcher who has a project on a marine protected area in Hawaii being able to connect with a poster about the history of colonization on that island. It's a way to provide a larger purview of the activity of doing science. Or imagine you are a person who has a DigitalOcean profile, where you've created a map of your research region of interest, and every time a poster is created somewhere in the world that has content relevant to that, you receive an announcement on your Digital Oceans home page."
But while the software will extend the posters' life indefinitely, Caron doesn't want to alter what he calls the "quintessentially ephemeral nature" of posters.
"We have no intention of changing that," he says. "In other words, just because a poster is archived in a database, we don't want to say that it is now a 'publication.' It's still a poster. So in the software, we have given the presenter the ability to mark the poster as 'superseded,' meaning that the snapshot it represents is not current and may have been superseded by more recent findings. It's a snapshot in time. And people will also be able to remove a poster from the system."