Do your figures tell your story?

When I review papers, I often read the introduction and methods, and then skip to the figures to see what I take away from them before reading the results. This can also be done the opposite way: read the results and imagine what they would look like in figure-form, then go look at the figures. I find this really useful when reviewing for making me get out of the passive reading of a manuscript and for encouraging me to think critically about the results. Sometimes, there’s a great match. Sometimes there isn’t and I realize I misunderstood something (which sometimes is just me messing up, but sometimes suggests something that is unclear in the paper). And sometimes I can’t figure out the reason for the discrepancy, which ends up being something I bring up in my review.

I was originally thinking about this as a tip for reviewing – as I said, it helps me think more deeply and critically about a paper. But, over time, I’ve realized it relates to a bigger issue: the accessibility of a paper. If you have a figure that clearly summarizes your results, your paper will be much more accessible to everyone from specialists in your area (the people who review your manuscript!) to non-specialists (including people who serve on search committees and award committees) and perhaps even to the general public.

As an instructor, I am always looking for interesting examples to use in class. Sometimes, there’s a figure that beautifully shows the results and that is accessible. I just read this paper and saw this figure and immediately thought that I need – need! – to add it to my lecture on food webs:

(Direct link to figure)

But, much more often, I see an interesting paper on a topic I teach about, but there’s no accessible figure that summarizes the results.

In 2001, Charles Krebs had a piece in the ESA Bulletin entitled “Why are my brilliant research findings not utilized in ecology textbooks?” In it, he suggests the following exercise:

Read a paper in Ecological Monographs (for example) that is not directly in your field of expertise, and try to extract a 1-2 sentence summary of findings reported in this paper, along with one figure to illustrate key results. You will find you cannot do this for most papers because the authors have not provided a succinct abstract or summary diagram to illustrate their findings. Now go back and look at your key papers and see if you have done the same thing.

I suspect that most people would not be able to do this for most of my papers, which suggests this is something I need to work on! And that’s even with having received this advice as a grad student. Back then, someone who read a draft of a manuscript I was working on said something along the lines of: “This could end up being a textbook example. Make the figure one that could go in a textbook.” As a graduate student, that was something I hadn’t considered, but it was good advice and made me think really hard about how the figure should look. Even if your work doesn’t end up in a textbook (and, as far as I know, mine hasn’t), it never hurts to have a clear, accessible figure!

So why is it so hard to find papers that do a good job of meeting Krebs’ target? In some cases, it might be unavoidable that there isn’t one key figure that tells the paper’s story – some results are more nuanced. But, even in those cases where there isn’t one key, broadly accessible figure in the paper, it should be possible to create a graphic that tells your story clearly. As one example, my postdoc Nina Wale recently had a paper come out based on her thesis work, and worked with the Penn State press office to create this visual synthesis of her work:


Making a synthetic figure like this takes time, but it also leads to more people reading your work. One journal found that adding visual abstracts to tweets led to 2.7 times more people clicking the link to read the paper. I find them useful for teaching, too – for example, I use this graphical abstract in my class:

as a way of setting up the experiment before showing them some data from it.

(Source: Goodrich et al. 2014)

So, I think I need to set myself a new goal for manuscripts: when making the figures for them, I should think harder about whether one of the figures can synthesize my story. And, if there isn’t one figure that I can point to, I should consider making a synthetic figure that can be used as a visual abstract. Krebs noted:

Graphical summaries or flow diagrams are particularly economical ways of communicating research findings, yet very few papers use them to encapsulate the discussion and synthesis of results.

This is a great excuse to use some of my #readinghour time this semester to read Edward Tufte’s Beautiful Evidence (which I’ve been wanting to read, but haven’t gotten to yet)!

Do you think your papers would meet Krebs’ target? When preparing a manuscript, do you think about making your figures textbook-ready? Have you used visual abstracts or created a graphical summary? I’d love to hear from readers about their experiences and tips!

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