What do you see in a pdf article when you scroll it for the first time? This is a question that you should be asking yourself when you write a paper. Experienced authors know that it’s all about importance of the figures that constitute an important part of your paper. Reviewers, journal editors, and readers are all humans after all and we have a similar way of thinking. If your figure catch someone’s eyes your paper has a good chance to catch his/her attention. If otherwise, you loose your audiences. So, the question is how to prepare quality figures?
Figures are an extremely important part of any scientific publication. Figures (and in particular, the graphical display of quantitative data) are uniquely suited to conveying information from complex data sets quickly and effectively. While statistical analysis aims for data reduction, expressing a mass of data by a few simple metrics, graphing retains the full information of the data. Graphs take advantage of the magnificent power of the human brain to recognize visual/spatial patterns and to quickly change focus from the big picture to small details. Graphs are used for data analysis2 and for data communication, though only the later application will be discussed here. Graphs are extremely popular in scientific literature3 for the simple reason that they work so well.
But like all forms of communication, graphics can be used to explain and clarify but also to confuse or deceive. Thus, the first rule of graphics is a simple one: they must help to reveal the truth. Just as disorganized writing often indicates disorganized thinking, a chart that fails to tell the story of the data usually means the author does not recognize what story should be told. Thus, sufficient care should be given to the design and execution of graphics, just as in the design and execution of the written paper itself.
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Senior scientists know about importance of the figures
What does a graph aim to do? Here are some of the more important goals of using a graphic for communication in a scientific publication:
Document the data (often a graph is the only place the data gets published)
Make comparisons (such as displaying trends)
Allow for inferences of cause and effect
Tell a story, or at least be an integral part of the tale
Integrate with the text to enhance the overall communication of the paper
The first choice in designing a graphic is what data to present. “Displays of evidence implicitly but powerfully define the scope of the relevant, as presented data are selected from a larger pool of material. Like magicians, chartmakers reveal what they choose to reveal.” Thus, this first choice is probably the most important since it defines what the graph (and the paper) will and will not be about. Graphs should communicate the essence of the results from the paper and not get bogged down in detail.
The design of the graph itself should be driven by the structure in the data, and what story the data has to tell. Since most graphics make comparisons (theory to experiment, condition A to condition B, etc.), deciding on the comparison to display defines the arc of the plot that unfolds. There is a fine line, however, between allowing the data to speak for itself and forcing the story you want to tell. Well-presented data should encourage the consideration of alternate explanations, not just your preferred explanation.
Overall, the process of creating a graphical display follows these basic steps: choose the data to be presented, define the message to be conveyed, pick a style of graph that supports the message, construct the graph seeking clarity, then revise it until it is right.
Underestimating importance of the figures can severely impact the overall reception of your paper.
-Quality has a direct relationship with time spent on something. If you care about the quality of your paper, take your time and be patient when you prepare your figures. In fact, the processing of your figures may take longer than writing the actual text of your paper. For instance, if you spend 2 weeks for writing the first draft of your manuscript, you may want to spend 2 or more weeks to prepare quality figures. In reality, however, these two may not be separable. The point is that it is not a waste of time to spend more than 50% of your time for figure preparation.
-Use advanced computer programs for analyses, graphs, and figure processing. A good program, commonly used in biology for analysis and drawing graphs, is Graphpad Prism. Another good program for preparing your figures is Adobe illustrator. If you are not a program guru, you should be one when it comes to writing a paper.
-represent data in the right format. A set of data can be represented in many different ways, such as bar graphs, line graphs, circle graphs, etc. You need to find out what is common and what is comprehensively clear. Represent your data in the most accurate and clear way. For instance, a dose response experiment must be shown using linear graphs. Bar graphs, although used in some papers, are not suitable in dose response experiments because they do not visually convey the message that this is a continues dose experiment.
-Do not use uncommon fonts in your figures. Arial is a very popular font when you need to label your figures. Calibri is a similar font with slight differences. On the other hand, Times New Roman, is not common for labeling figures, although it is commonly used in the main body of the scientific papers.