Academic posters

A textual and visual metadiscourse analysis

by Larissa D’Angelo (Author)
©2016 Monographs 367 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 214


This volume presents a cross-disciplinary analysis of academic poster presentations, taking into consideration the text and visuals that posters display depending on the discipline within which they are created. As the academic poster is a multimodal genre, different modal aspects have been taken into consideration when analysing it, a fact that has somehow complicated the genre analysis conducted, but has also stimulated the research work involved and, in the end, provided interesting results.
The analysis carried out here has highlighted significant cross-disciplinary differences in terms of word count, portrait/landscape orientation and layout of posters, as well as discipline and subdiscipline-specific patterns for what concerns the use of textual interactive and interactional metadiscourse resources and visual interactive resources.
The investigation has revealed what textual and visual metadiscourse resources are employed, where and why, and as a consequence, what textual and visual metadiscourse strategies should be adopted by poster authors depending on the practices and expectations of their academic community.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • List of Abbreviations
  • Chapter 1: Introduction
  • 1.1 The poster session: the ‘open market’ of research
  • 1.2 Rationale for the study
  • 1.3 Overview of the volume
  • Chapter 2: Review of the literature
  • 2.1 Overview of the chapter
  • 2.2 The academic community, its disciplines and subdisciplines
  • 2.3 What is academic discourse?
  • 2.4 What are academic genres?
  • 2.5 What is an academic poster presentation?
  • 2.6 What is metadiscourse?
  • 2.7 What is multimodality?
  • 2.8 Principles underlying corpus design
  • 2.9 Summary of the chapter and Research Questions
  • Chapter 3: Data collected
  • 3.1 Introduction
  • 3.2 Why a corpus of academic posters?
  • 3.3 Selection of subdisciplines
  • 3.4 Principles underlying my corpus design
  • 3.5 The survey
  • 3.6 Retrieval of posters
  • 3.7 Interviews with poster presenters
  • 3.8 Naming and formatting of files
  • 3.9 Summary of the chapter
  • Chapter 4: Framework of analysis
  • 4.1 Overview of the chapter
  • 4.2 A new framework of analysis
  • 4.3 Metadiscourse resources in texts
  • 4.4 Metadiscourse resources in visuals
  • 4.5 Searching the corpus
  • 4.6 The limits of description
  • 4.7 Summary and conclusions
  • Chapter 5: Results and analysis by subcorpora
  • 5.1 Introduction
  • 5.2 Textual and visual analysis of the High Energy Particle Physics subcorpus
  • 5.3 Textual and visual analysis of the Law subcorpus
  • 5.4 Textual and visual analysis of the Clinical Psychology subcorpus
  • 5.5 A cross-disciplinary comparison of academic posters
  • Chapter 6: General discussion and conclusions
  • 6.1 Introduction
  • 6.2 Research question 1
  • 6.3 Research question 2
  • 6.4 Research question 3
  • 6.5 Research limitations and recommendations for further research
  • 6.6 Conclusions
  • Appendices
  • Appendix 1
  • Appendix 2
  • Appendix 3
  • Appendix 4
  • Appendix 5
  • Appendix 6
  • Appendix 7
  • References
  • Index
  • Series index

← 8 | 9 →

List of Abbreviations

← 10 | 11 →

Chapter 1:  Introduction

This volume presents an intra-disciplinary analysis of academic poster presentations, considering the text and visuals that posters display, depending on the discipline within which they are created. Because the academic poster is a multimodal genre, different modal aspects must be taken into consideration when analysing it, a fact that has somehow complicated the genre analysis conducted, but has also stimulated the research work involved and, in the end, provided interesting results. The present chapter begins by introducing the poster session event, what it consists of and how it fits in the broader conference experience. The rationale for the present study is then presented, followed by an overview of the book’s chapters.

1.1  The poster session: the ‘open market’ of research

In almost every discipline, a student or young researcher is bound eventually to engage in the daunting task of presenting one’s research work through an academic poster. As discussed by Swales and Feak (2000) and Swales (2004), the poster session itself is often met with mixed reviews from both participants and viewers because of several physical limitations, (e.g., the often limited time and space to showcase posters, as well as the limited space that a poster makes available to writers, restricting the amount of text displayed), and the fact that still today certain research genres, such as poster presentations, are valued differently depending on the discipline. Poster sessions, on the other hand, do play an important part in academic conferences because they allow academics to present and discuss not only completed research work but also ongoing research and preliminary findings, which would often not be presented in a paper session. This fact alone distinguishes the academic poster from other genres, making the poster session an ← 11 | 12 → interesting and engaging event to participate in and a valid alternative to other, more sophisticated genres, such as the conference plenary and the paper presentation.

The poster presentation, unlike the more sophisticated genres mentioned above, is a type of conference presentation that makes the use of visuals pivotal. Posters display text and visuals so that viewers can ‘glimpse’ into the research work of a colleague, having, in this case, the freedom of ‘reading’ the poster at one’s own speed, of lingering on a specific aspect of the work, a table, a graph or a picture displayed, and finally, of having the unique opportunity to engage with the author in a one-on-one discussion.

The poster session originates in and is unfortunately mostly limited to the conference that organises it. Often a daunting place to be, the academic conference and the poster session, in particular, are a remarkably rich arena where one can display one’s progress or findings in research, practice one’s oratory skills while presenting the poster, or simply participate as listeners/observers in the ever-flowing academic discourse. As Swales (2004) and Shalom (2002) have vividly described, poster presentations, paper presentations, and plenary lectures are not really extractable or detachable from the broader conference experience because they

[…] involve the travel to and from the venue, the meeting of old friends and the making of new acquaintances, the plenaries, receptions, and book exhibits, and the intangibles of the conference ‘buzz’ – its taut intellectual atmosphere, its rush from one talk to another, its gossip, its job interviews, its hot topics, and its ‘in’ people (Swales, 2004: 197).

In 1985, Dubois started researching conference presentations (CPs) (meaning here any oral presentation given during a conference, such as a plenary, a paper presentation and a poster presentation) from a discourse perspective, but it was not until the late 1990s that more work was published, studying the CP genre from a wide range of fields, including Applied Linguistics (Luukka, 1996; Shalom, 2002; Thompson, 2002), Engineering (Räisänen, 1999, 2002), Geology and Medicine (Webber, 2002), Physics (Rowley-Jolivet, 1999; Rowley-Jolivet & Carter-Thomas, 2005; Thompson, 2002), History (Ventola, 2002). ← 12 | 13 → One feature of this research has been the considerable attention paid to the complex multimodal semiotics of modern CPs, especially in technical, medical and scientific arenas of enquiry. Dubois (1980) was the first to point out the central role played by visuals, and since her pioneering work, the attention to the non-verbal dimension of CPs has been substantial. Rowley-Jolivet (2000, 2002), who investigated CPs in petrology, oncology and physics at European conferences, for example, observes:

Between the lab or field, and the written genres of science, however, lies the relatively unexplored genre of the conference presentation […]. In the scientific presentation, whatever the discipline, the visual channel of communication is a major resource for meaning making: visuals are omnipresent throughout the talks given, with slides or transparencies being continuously projected onto the screen during the speaker’s monologue. Any investigation of how the conference presentation genre makes and communicates meaning must therefore address its visual dimension. (2000:134)

In certain humanities’ areas, such as Applied Linguistics, History or Philosophy, the role of visuals may be minimal (Swales, 2004), but across much of the disciplinary spectrum, a conference presenter is expected to provide some visual support, whether in the form of a PowerPoint, a poster or, simply, a handout. Given the limited time allotted to CPs, the idea that ‘a picture is worth a thousand words’ is becoming more and more widespread (Swales, 2004: 199). Although Swales (2004) recognises that there are marked differences in the kind of visuals expected in and by different disciplinary fields, it is still not very clear if the spoken verbal commentary that the visuals evoke is markedly different depending on the discipline.

A second major strand of research has focused on the intermediate status of the CP, being somewhat a stage lying between the research work itself and the final product of the research article (Swales, 2004: 199). As early as 1980, Dubois observed of her Biology CPs: “One glimpses research as it is actually conducted, before it is sanitised to present a picture of straight-line progress toward public knowledge” (p. 143). Almost two decades later, Rowley-Jolivet reinforced the idea by stating that ← 13 | 14 →

[CPs] open a window, so to speak, onto the nature of scientific activity before its formulation in the discourse conventions of the research article, enabling one to draw a more precise topography of the ‘work’ accomplished by the latter (1999:188).

During this process, listeners may be

Drawn into the presenters’ worlds as they narrate unexpected problems, reveal various kinds of ad-hocery with materials and methods, and admit to the contingent nature of the research process itself (Swales, 2004: 200).

CPs in general have been said to have an ‘intermediate status’ (Swales, 2004: 199), meaning that unpublished research work is presented, discussed and then revised. The poster session itself can be viewed as an arena within the arena. Also in this smaller arena a number of research projects, whether ongoing or concluded, are displayed, presented, discussed and often challenged. Although academics generally view the poster session as less intimidating than the paper session (Crooks & Kilpatrick, 1998), it is undeniably in the poster session that presenters have to showcase their knowledge and defend their work. Paper presentations, for example, generally last between 20 and 30 minutes, whereas a poster session can last for several hours, and there is no limit to how long a single poster presentation can last because the interaction that takes place between a presenter and an interested viewer is spontaneous. It might end after a couple of minutes, or it might last for an hour, if not more (Dubois, 1985). All these aspects will be considered and discussed in section 2.5, but it is worthwhile to mention here that each poster, for example, if well designed, with clear content, can potentially have wide audience, much wider than a paper or PowerPoint presentation. Having a wide audience, however, means that inevitably, a very high number of questions and comments will be asked by interested viewers, and the poster presenter is expected to answer all the questions to the best of his/her knowledge and acknowledge all the comments, and they may either be positive or negative.

Fortunately, this smaller arena is also traditionally more informal than other sessions. It is here that the presenter can engage, if necessary, in longer discussions, describing the work done (or yet to be done), admitting to mistakes and doubts, asking questions and receiving ← 14 | 15 → answers from the viewer, and, finally, where researchers socialise and the networking is done. Also, compared to genres with more rigid structures, such as the research article, these multimodal academic works (i.e. works that comprise text, visual elements and a spoken component) differ from most other academic genres because, although like the research article they aim to both inform and persuade readers, they also allow the author a certain amount of creativity, all the while lacking precise and universally accepted poster presentation guidelines.

As Miracle (2003) noticed, thanks to the Internet, there is now a great variety of material searchable online addressing issues in poster design and presentation. These guidelines provide easy-to-use information, which aids authors, even inexperienced ones, in presenting discourse clearly and coherently. Unfortunately it is unclear whether certain poster presentation rules and conventions are discipline-specific. Are posters in the hard sciences similar to the posters in the so-called soft sciences? Are there any unspoken rules and conventions that recur within single disciplines and should, therefore, be openly known to novice academics? These are the questions students and academics in general pose themselves when they start using the genre.

1.2  Rationale for the study

After an extensive literature search on sources available in English, I realised that a systematic linguistic and visual analysis had never been carried out on the genre of academic poster presentations, and the vision–language interaction has so far been overlooked in multimodal genre analysis, though the need for multimodal corpora is increasing more and more. Currently, a corpus comprising conference poster presentations created in different disciplinary fields and systematically collected and annotated does not exist. As a consequence, a consistent and reliable textual and semiotic analysis, that is also interdisciplinary, has been carried out yet on this ‘marginalised’ genre. The lack of conference poster presentation corpora made the need for such a study more ← 15 | 16 → urgent and the creation of a poster corpus became vital to carry out a consistent analysis of the genre.

Online forums and websites such as Better Posters (Faulkes, 2015), Pimp my Poster (Purrington, 2014), the AALS Poster Project (Miller, 2013) and the Online Journal of Scientific Posters all gather and display posters presented in different disciplines, mostly within the hard sciences. These online resources are certainly a valuable resource because they represent a varied pool of data and a point of reference for the novice poster presenter who asks him/herself for the first time what a poster is and what it should look like. However, because a corpus gathering posters from different disciplines has never been devised and methodically implemented, there is a lack of reliable and representative data to carry out research on the genre. As a consequence, a thorough linguistic and visual analysis has never been carried out on the genre of academic posters.

Because of the lack of a systematic linguistic and visual analysis on the genre of academic posters, there is a need for a study of poster presentations that records and classifies the most common strategies employed by poster presenters across disciplines and subdisciplines. To carry out such analysis, an ad hoc framework of analysis must first be established, capable of classifying the linguistic and visual resources utilised by poster presenters.

Given the motivations above, the main aim of this volume is to investigate which textual and visual reader-oriented strategies are commonly employed in poster presentations in different academic disciplines, i.e. which elements are found in the text and in the visuals of posters that help the reader understand concepts better, help him/her follow the unfolding text and involve him/her in the evolving discourse. To explore this aspect of academic presentations, and answer these research questions, a corpus of 120 posters gathered from three subdisciplines has been produced, devised and analysed linguistically as well as visually, considering the most common guidelines and rules currently available online and offline to students and junior researchers.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2016 (March)
Poster Academic presentation Academic discourse Text analysis Linguistics English for Specific Purposes
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 367 pp.

Biographical notes

Larissa D’Angelo (Author)

Larissa D’Angelo, PhD in Applied Linguistics (University of Reading), is a Lecturer of English at the University of Bergamo. Her main research interests deal with EAP and multimodal genres employed in academic discourse. She is an active member of the Research Centre on Languages for Specific Purposes (CERLIS) and has been involved in several national and international research projects.


Title: Academic posters
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