Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Spring! Baseball! Cherry Blossoms! Sandals! And research conferences.

I plan on posting about a couple studies that are just about to get presented at annual research conferences, or have recently been presented. Spring is a big season, since the weather is generally more hospitable than winter for cold climes, and summer for hot climes. So, I am going to post on the phenomenon of “research conferences” - if you do not know what it means for a “poster” or “paper” to be presented at the Annual Scientific Meeting of Whatever Impressive Title, this will help you see what the deal is.

These events are often the thing that provokes the science-related “news” you hear in the media. Once you read through this, you can see how it can be a challenge to get hold of some of this evidence, but how it can be the source for new info on your topics.

Typically, each of these private scientific societies has an annual research conference, where new research findings are presented. These conferences are typically about 3 days long, with a variety of activities, but mainly "poster" and "paper" presentations. Researchers typically attend one or two or three in their areas of interest each year. Usually, researchers are “members,” who have paid the annual dues (maybe 100 to 200 bucks a year dues) to receive the society’s journal, and to attend the conference at “member” rates. Conferences are usually in great places, so the researchers get to see what the real world is like outside of their office, and dream of retirement, or that big chunk of unreported money from Big Pharma. Researchers usually stay at the hotel that is hosting the conference, which is a good thing, since there are a lot of researchers who can’t really handle cocktail receptions plus a drive across town to a cheap hotel in an unfamiliar town. This driving ability varies by profession, hovever.

As noted, there are two main ways that research is presented: “paper” or “poster.” When you check in to the conference, you get the program or programs, which will include in one piece or a couple pieces of literature the schedule, plus the listings of research that will be presented. There are two main types of ways to present research at a conference: “paper” or “poster.” Each is presented in a “session" with others of its type (papers togther, posters together, and never mixed!).

A “paper” presentation means that for a session of an hour and a half or so, a series of four of five researchers will each have about 10 to 15 minutes to present a study to anyone attending. This happens in those big rooms you see in the bigger hotels, where most of us may have been for a wedding reception, a high-pressure free-lunch get-rich-quick sales pitch, or some such event.

Some paper sessions fill the room. Some end up being thinly attended, with as many people in the audience as are on-stage. This happens either 1. In response to prayer from a researcher who is a researcher because he or she does not like a lot of interpersonal attention, or 2. Because you got stuck in the poster session on the final day of the conference, when everyone else is “skipping” to go see the local attractions.

In the schedule, the papers do not have info other than the title and authors, while the posters usually include the “abstract” - a couple or few hundred words communicating the essence of the study, including, hopefully, actual outcomes.

With the schedule, you go attend whatever “paper” session interests you. “Papers” are really powerpoint slide presentations from one of the researchers who did the study. A couple people will ask questions after each paper (don't be a microphone hog, and please have an actual question - if you just have an issue, put a bumpersticker on your car). Often, there is some knowledgeable person being the host for the session, who will introduce each, have some sort of summary comments at the end of the 4-5 paper presentations. Otherwise, the coordination is done simply by the scheduled speakers fumbling around together, plus the media tech. So, you have to sit through the presentations to hear what you want. Or you can sneak in and out to catch just one paper, but you need to be quiet. If you want to discuss something with the presenter, you need to catch him or her after the paper session, or locate them later at the conference. Or contact them later - many conferences provide a list of presenters, including contact info, just for this reason.

The “poster” sessions are a little different. This is more like a high school science fair. In some other big ballroom at the hotel, for some set time in the schedule, maybe a couple hours, researchers will be presenting their “poster.” What is a “poster?” it is just a large, printed poster communicating the essentials of a study.

The poster will be thumb-tacked up to a free-standing stand. About 3-4 foot high, and 6-8 foot wide. There may be hundreds of posters presented in one poster session, with the stands lined up, making temporary aisles in the ballroom. When electronic programs like powerpoint were less available, the actual materials could vary greatly, and some were even hand-drawn, or simply out of the computer inkjet printer, at some conferences. This is getting less common, but is still fun to see.

When you show up for the conference, you get the “abstract” of all posters in a magazine-like publication. This could be part of the whole schedule you are handed, or could be separate. Sometimes, this collection of posters is an actual edition of the journal published by the society. Still it is understood that this is not peer-reviewed as other journal pubs are, so the level of scientific quality is not included.

Now, you can wander through any “poster” session and just see what is there, or you can look through the program in advance and note any posters that you specifically want to see.

So, you find the times for the poster sessions, organized by topics, and you go to the room at the correct time, and go look for whatever poster you like. Each poster has a number, and these are all arranged in order, so you have half a chance of finding any abstract you want. There is supposed to be at least one researcher at the poster for those two hours waiting to answer any questions, discuss implications, brainstorm ideas, network, etc. So, this will look like a swap meet or a health fair, with a person “manning” each poster station.

Also, at the poster sessions, you see old friends and colleagues, and catch up on the latest news. You can’t do that in the paper sessions because it is like a classroom lecture, and you need to keep quiet. But the poster sessions can be, hopefully, noisy, with plenty of great discussion all over the place.

Because a smaller volume of studies can be presented by the “paper” lecture format, compared to the “poster” format, and because it requires more set-up, coordination, etc., this format is reserved for the more significant research. Thus, it carries more prestige to present a paper versus a poster. Basically, the requirements to present a poster are not very high, beyond presenting something that actually is a study, with some data, somewhat relevant to the topic area of the conference.

Nonetheless, when the conference is over, each researcher can declare on his or her resume, or “cv,” (“curriculum vita;” what? You want us to use the everyday term “resume”? We are researchers, not ordinary rabble) that he or she has presented the results at whatever conference on whatever date.

Because, overall, the level of scrutiny and scientific value is not very high, compared to submitting a research study to a peer-reviewed journal, it is not such a big deal to have a conference presentation as it is to get a publication. Usually, the conference presentation is done first, on a quicker timeline, and the manuscript is a longer-term effort. Not all conference presentations end up as published, peer-reviewed papers. Not by a long shot. There is simply too much presented at conferences, and not enough peer-reviewed journal pages. E-journals may change all of this. But for the time-begin, the limited space of print journals adds some indicator of quality to a researcher’s work. With that being said, you would think that the leading journals would have super-high quality stuff, but you can read my other posts and determine that this is patently not the case at times. I guess it is so notable and bothersome because I and others do believe that the peer-reviewed journals should indicate some level of quality and relevance.

The value of conferences is to get your research out there quickly, to share and get feedback, and to get things listed on your cv so others know what you are interested in, and what you are up to lately. So, conferences can be great ways to discover new, emerging research. But a downside is that, compared to peer-reviewed research journals, it is very difficult to discover and access these conference presentations. Indeed, even at the conference, if the researcher does not bring a paper hand-out for you to take with you, you may have very little in hand to analyze as you pursue knowledge on your various interests.

Ironically, even though the paper is more prestigious than the poster, the poster has more of a paper trail allowing people to actually get the info more readily: the abstract will be in the “conference proceedings” magazine guide mentioned earlier. In contrast, the paper will only have the title and authors listed.

But if you want to scrape around for evidence on topics where there is not much evidence published, or you want to see what is new on an emerging topic, conference proceedings are a great source. If you can track them down.

Conferences are sources for news stories. The research society may send out press releases, and usually has some means for hosting journalists. Journalists may scan the upcoming conferences to figure out what might be newsworthy. This can be a challenge - when you look at the news headlines, or watch the evening news, the fact that something is mentioned makes it seem relevant. But a very profound, or controversial, or pioneering, bit of evidence can be communicated in a paper, or poster abstract, with nothing other than your brain to indicate that it, out of the dozens of paper titles, and the hundreds of poster abstracts, is especially notable.

So, these conferences are where a lot of these news headlines come from when they say some researchers have just reported this or that, at some annual conference.

As time goes by, hopefully bloggers get into the act, also, of getting worthwhile info out to others.

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