The True Power of Article Figures

succes with article figures

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Poor Figures Might Devaluate the Perceived Quality of the Published Work

We all know that no scientist reads a publication from cover to cover. We’re skimming and scanning people. It allows us to quickly get the information we need without wasting time on non-relevant parts. It is Pareto’s law or the 80/20 principle at work. We get 80% of the information by reading 20% of the paper.

Turns out that this 20% of most read parts are almost always the same for different readers. Moreover, they are shared between unrelated publications… Exactly, I’m talking about the figures. Besides the title, this is certainly the most accessed part of any scientific publication.

The funny part is that all scientists know this (including you), but few use this information to their own advantage. Think about it, you know in advance which part of your manuscript will be read the most. This should trigger an automatic response to prioritize these parts and make them exquisite. It is your first impression with your reader. And as you know, first impressions you can only make once. If you date somebody that you’ve never seen before, I bet you do everything to make this first impression unforgettable. Why not when you publish?

There is another, often forgotten, pitfall. Your reader will unconsciously and automatically judge the quality of your research upon the first encounter, just by looking at the figures. The quality of your research can be outstanding, but if it is not reflected in the figures, the perceived quality will be lower. Compare it with a crappy label on a excellent bottle of wine, the wine will be perceived of lesser quality.

It often takes years of hard work and a lot of money to obtain the data for this one publication. And then when it is time to publish, the scientist spends a disproportionate amount of time in preparing the figures. In extreme cases, these figures are made in a day or less. Obviously, the quality is often subpar. What the scientist doesn’t realize is that the quality of her work will be unconsciously perceived as mediocre too.

The reason this happens all the time is simple. A good scientist doesn’t necessarily has the skills of a good artist or a good communicator. Everybody has its own qualities and expertise. But what I see is that not many research scientists seem to be aware of this. There is still this notion that scientists have to make their own figures (and I’m especially talking about mechanisms of action figures, overviews and graphical abstracts), rather than acquire the right skills or reaching out to professionals. This is all fine and dandy for internal communications and reporting, but is it for scientific publishing?

There are many ways to improve article figures to have a bigger impact and convey the message better. For example by making the figures more aesthetically appealing. Aesthetic compositions are perceived as easier to understand than less aesthetic compositions. Moreover, more people will feel attracted to these figures because of the well known attractiveness bias we all have. This alone will result in more visibility and possibly citations. This is just one example, but there are many more.

However, this phenomenon creates a huge opportunity for the scientist that is aware of it (this might be you). If you construct your figures in a way so that they not only represent the data, but also convey the message and make people interested in the research, you’ll gain visibility, credibility and most probably citations. That is the true power of article figures. Think about it.

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  • anon says:

    One of the most time consuming parts of my thesis was getting the shapes and colours in my scattergraph to be clear and aesthetically pleasing. It was worth it, and made me happy to revisit the document.

  • nigel hawtin says:

    A good overview article. Agree with many of your points. After working with and from science papers over many years, I still find it difficult to believe that the graphics still need improving and we still have to say these things

    • Luk says:

      Thanks Nigel! Difficult to believe indeed, but the sad truth is that only a minority of scientists seems to realise the importance and impact of their visual communication.