Research Tips & Stories for Everyone
Academic research papers consist of two main items: Texts and figures. As we call ourselves authors, scientific writing to prepare the texts in academic papers has been familiar ground for generations of researchers old and young, and a well-integrated part of research training in most universities. However, another half of the academic paper – scientific figures – has undergone notable changes in the recent decades. Powered by the technological advances in digital and online publication platforms and computer-aided design software, the scientific figures have seen dramatic changes in style and format from black and white lined schematics with simple plots to magazine-quality color schematics with modernistic charts. As a young early career researcher who has spent a whole research career throughout this trend so far, I have rather complex opinions on this trend with its light and shadow.
On the bright side, the scientific figures might be one of the most benefited parts of an academic paper by the digital and online transformation in the paper publication. Advances in consumer graphical software (such as Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop) have allowed academic researchers with limited design training to generate high-quality and aesthetically attractive graphical elements at ease with their personal computers. Broad dissemination of digital and online platforms in academic journals has allowed the publishers to support the larger and bigger color figures in a more reader-friendly format at much lower or no cost to the authors. More complicated, colorful, information-rich, and attractive graphics in scientific figures have appealed to not only academic audiences but also the general public as visual aids to help them better understand sophisticated academic contents, partly helping the broader outreach of academic outcomes as well as democratization of scientific and technical findings with help of journalists and popular media (including social network services such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn).
On the darker side, the changing trend in scientific figures has been somehow too fast compared to the corresponding adaptation in academic research training and curriculum. As there are clear financial (larger revenue from the higher number of viewers/subscribers – especially from the general public) and non-financial (more citations and media attention) benefits of publishing papers with figures with aesthetically attractive visuals for the academic publishers, the trend of favoring visually elaborated scientific figures have quickly become conspicuous in many research disciplines, particularly in highly popular/prestigious journals. However, the necessary set of graphical skills and training to catch up with this trend was not part of the traditional academic training for graduate students and postdocs, generating a substantial curriculum/training vacuum for the skills that might critically affect their academic career even for the most recently trained PhDs.
Despite many advantages on the brighter side, the sobering curriculum/training vacuum in the current academic system to deal with the trend of fancy scientific figures has generated several problems. First of all, the lack of established training to help researchers to learn and practice the needed graphical skills in the combination of the recent trend of the ever-increasing importance of high-quality and attractive figures in academic paper publications creates a worrisome disparity between researchers/institutes/research groups. Researchers with graphical training experience or research groups/institutes with plenty of resources to get professional graphical help can enjoy significant advantages over researchers/research groups that do not have access to such resources. Second, the scarcity of good graphical skills to follow the trend somehow strengthens the favoritism on graphically attractive scientific figures, rendering it more like merit of academic work on top of the traditional qualities of good science (such as a novel idea, rigorous data and analyses, insightful discussion, etc) – which might be most conspicuous in highly competitive journals not surprisingly following supply & demand rules as like all other human activities – that is a particularly worrisome aspect to me. Third, researchers face significant burdens to learn the needed graphical skills under pressure from the ever-stronger trend in recent years but in a highly inefficient manner due to the lack of readily accessible curriculum, training resources, and guidance.
What can we do to make this better? One might argue that the recent trend in scientific figures is just wrong, and we have to revert to the old good simpler days. I personally like the idea, but it is also true that such regressive change might not likely given that there is a good number of advantages and strong merit to participants in the system (including scientific publishers) to continue or even fostering the current trend. As an early career researcher who self-learned many graphical skills to follow the trend, I think that the more realistic and practical way would be gradually building training strategies, curriculums, and accessible resources for the current and future generations of researchers to catch up with the trend on the academic side of the world.
So, I plan to cover tip posts focusing on various aspects of scientific figure preparation to share my experience and skills. Since I got most of the graphical skills that I use daily basis in more or less self-learning mode, the tip posts on this topic might be a bit less organized and eclectic (so I may not put part numbers and organize posts on Table of Contents page dynamically). In rough categories, I will cover the following items:
Tools and techniques
Graphical design basics
I will try to accompany each tip post with downloadable and editable example files to aid the readers (and hopefully short screen-recorded videos too if applicable). While it would be a limited resource reflecting limitations of my own experience and skills, but I wish the upcoming tip posts can be useful for fellow researchers.
Disclaimer. The contents are my personal opinion and do not represent the view of any institution or company I am affiliated/employed. If you find any incorrect information, please feel free to let me know via my email.