How to Help Authors to Improve the Quality of Figures
Take Home Points:
1. Authors should choose the best visualizations for their data.
2. High-quality must figures have all the right components and are accessible.
3. Housekeeping details matter when publishing high-quality figures.
Figures are important parts of journal articles. A figure contains a visualization or graphical representation of data or concepts that can be a table, graph (or plot), chart, image, schematic, or map. Figures communicate data, have the ability to transmit a lot of information quickly and concisely, and allow readers to explore and understand ideas an article is trying to convey in a different way. Readers will often just look at the figures in an article to determine the article’s main points or if they should read the entire article. In other words, figures can attract readers to your journal, so it will advance the reputation of your journal to help your authors create the best figures they can. This blog post gives some tips on how authors can create high-quality figures.
A Visualization Must Fit the Data or a Concept
Figures should be easy to understand by the article’s intended audience and able to stand-alone (i.e. be understood without reading the text). To achieve this, authors need to pick the right visual representation for a data set and the message to be conveyed. Picking the right visual representations allows readers to use figures to detect data patterns and outliers or better understand concepts. Some questions authors should ask themselves before creating a quality figure are
- What is the purpose of the figure? A figure should concisely communicate important information and help readers easily understand or analyze data.
- Who is the article’s audience? Expert readers can handle more complex figures than general readers.
- Which type of visualization will work best? Some visual representations are good for showing the readers facts and figures (such as tables and bar graphs); other representations are better for helping readers analyze data (such as line graphs).
Authors should use the best visualization type for the data or concept they are presenting. For example, tables are good visualizations to use when organizing data. Line graphs are good visualizations to show trends or to compare data. Diagrams and photos can show the parts of an object or how an object is put together.
A Figure is More Than a Good Visualization
Good graphical representations or visualizations should be created while understanding that many people may have trouble processing figures (see Home | Section508.gov for a comprehensive discussion). For example, some people have trouble distinguishing colors. Red and green or blue and yellow combinations should be avoided. If possible, using colors should be avoided in favor of using textures and shapes to distinguish between data or trends of data. Some fonts are easier to read than others; letters and numbers are more easily distinguished with serif fonts than sans serif fonts.
High-quality figures are more than just good visualizations or images. Good figures have clear labels—all axes in graphs should be labeled and important items should be labeled on images. Scale bars, which indicate distance or the sizes of features in the image, are included in good figures that use images or schematics. Sometimes graphs need to be explained using legends—a legend can tell what each line or bar of a graph represents (not to be confused with figure captions). Labels, scale bars, or legends use quantities, and units should accompany every quantity used. Care should be given to the fonts, font sizes, and orientation of text used in labels, scale bars, or legends. The use of these features and their legibility are often key for readers to fully understand figures (see Figure 1).
Figure 1: This figure contains the necessary qualities to be quickly and easily understood, including appropriate fonts, font sizes, labels, and scale bars.
Every figure should be accompanied by a short figure caption that often includes the title of a figure, a concise description of the visualization, and a brief description of any symbols or abbreviations used. Furthermore, figures should be introduced and fully described in the text of an article (e.g. what is a figure trying to convey and what are some conclusions that can be drawn from the figure). Note that a figure caption is not alt-text, which is a short statement that accompanies a figure and describes the figure. Alt-text can make figures accessible to people who cannot see them or have a visual disability. By using figure captions, descriptions, and alt-text, authors can ensure that their data and analyses are accessible and understandable to as many readers as possible.
Authors should review their figures carefully to make sure the figures are not offensive, protect the privacy of human subjects, and do not display company names. Authors need to be aware of any cultural sensitivities or violations of humans’ privacy in their figures and take steps to eliminate any negative impacts. Permission or written consent is often needed when using images of human subjects or human remains, using company logos to avoid trademark infringement, and using any material that has been reused from a previously published source, even if you have adapted the material.
Don’t Forget the Housekeeping Details
So far, creating quality figures has been discussed without dealing with some important housekeeping items. This section will deal with these critical details. One of the most significant points is that manipulating images and data must be avoided (for example, using processing software, cropping images, omitting data) to change or improve results. This can be considered data manipulation. In addition, original visualizations should be used; if figures consist of visualizations not created by authors, permission must be obtained. It is unethical to present manipulated data or to present data that is already published as original.
Authors should also be aware of the journal’s guidelines in which they are interested in publishing. Some guidelines are
- The type of file that should be used (for example, tiff or PDF)
- The resolution that the native image should have (e.g. 300 dpi, 600 dpi, 1200 dpi)
- The color mode that should be used (CMYK or RBG)
- The final dimensions of an image (e.g. 90 mm wide)
Many programs have default settings (e.g. default dpi) which are not the same as a journal’s guidelines, so authors should create their figures using the journal’s guidelines from the start and not upscale the figure. The best conceived figure will simply not look good if the resolution is poor, does not fit the space provided, or is saved using the wrong file type.
Journals with great reputations are often known for their high-quality figures, so helping authors submit high-quality figures with their journal articles can be crucial to how your journal is perceived. Take the time to guide authors through the development of figures. Remind authors to develop the best figures for their data or concepts and do not hesitate to provide examples to help authors understand your journal’s guidelines. Remember, bad figures can confuse or even offend readers and distract from the conclusions of a journal article, while good figures illuminate an article and are able to draw readers in.
- Accessible Figures Guidance. (2023). https://teachinghub.bath.ac.uk/accessible-figures-guidance/
- Dames, J., An Incomplete Guide to Creating Accessible Content, Tag Suite conference (JATS-Con) Proceedings (2022). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK579620/
- Figures and Tables. (2023). https://www.springer.com/gp/authors-editors/authorandreviewertutorials/writing-a-journal-manuscript/figures-and-tables/10285530
- Getting Better Quality Figures/ Images for Publication. (2018). https://cdn.ymaws.com/www.ismte.org/resource/resmgr/Docs/Getting_Better_Quality_Figur.pdf
- Lannon, J. M. (1997). Technical Communication. Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc.
- Nature Formatting Guide. (2023). https://www.nature.com/nature/for-authors/formatting-guide
- Section508.gov. (n.d.). https://www.section508.gov/
- Taylor and Francis Editorial Policies, Images and Figures. (n.d.). https://authorservices.taylorandfrancis.com/editorial-policies/images-and-figures/
- Taylor and Francis Author Services, How to make your research accessible: A step-by-step guide. (2023). https://authorservices.taylorandfrancis.com/publishing-your-research/writing-your-paper/how-to-make-your-research-accessible/
Conflicts of Interest:
None to declare