Skills Earth Sciences

Forethought of making figures

Although making figures is a time-consuming process, it is well worth spending time on it. Making figures is a very important aspect of both communicating your research and data to your audience and your own data analysis. Using figures in your work helps you to communicate complicated research by simplifying and visualising your data11. Moreover, when making figures you’re required to focus on certain elements of your research which may cause re-evaluation of your data interpretation or collection methods. These selective thoughts help you take your research and analyses to a higher level. Therefore, we recommend you to already start making your figures early in your data analysis stage. This will save you time when you start a write-up, as you have already thought about your data extensively beforehand.

Including professional figures in your work makes it more attractive to a potential reader. However, do not add figures just to increase the visual interest of your product. Keep in mind that the main function of using figures is to help your reader to understand your writing or presentation. Using too many and/or unclear figures will only decrease your audience’s understanding. In general, you use a figure in your writing if it shows something that is relevant, and if it is difficult to describe in words. When you need to explain a complicated lab procedure in your methods for example, or a complicated process, you might use a conceptual figure to simplify it to your reader. You can also add a map of the location of your study site or a picture from a field site showing specific features relevant to your study, but do not insert a picture just because it ‘looks nice’.

More specifically, creating graphs or maps to visualise your research data is a good way of communicating your research results to your audience. However, if your data is not too complicated, it might be better to present it in text (e.g., for simple statistics like p-values). As a rule of thumb, if you can present your results in one or two sentences, it is better to use text10, 11. If your data however is more complicated or too extensive, you should use a figure or a table as this saves space and prevents your text from cluttering up with too much information10. Furthermore, graphs and maps can reveal trends, correlations and patterns that are otherwise impossible to detect10.

The main purpose of figures in scientific writing is to communicate your research to your audience10. Therefore, each figure needs to contain a core message that is relevant to your research question19. Think about the message you want to convey with your figure and keep the core message in mind when you are creating it. Without a core message, your audience will likely have trouble understanding your figure. One tip to make sure your graph has a core message is to check whether it provides the answer for a specific question.

Since each of the figures you use needs to convey your message about your research, it is preferred to make your own figures instead of using figures from other sources. If you do use figures from other sources, be sure to adapt them to fit your own message.

As you will likely be dealing with complex data, you cannot show all the data you have without considering the purpose of the graph or figure. Therefore, keep it simple, and make a careful selection of what you want to show. Students (and scientists in general) often want to be as complete and unambiguous as possible. This often means they want to include every detail in their figures. Moreover, scientists want to show how much research went into their paper because otherwise it might look ‘under researched’ or ‘non-scientific’. Nonetheless, keeping your figures simple is very important for your audience to understand your message. If your figure does not have a clear message your audience may come up with a message themselves, which can be completely different from the story you wanted to tell. However, always be aware of (un)intentionally misleading your audience by leaving out important information.

If you have multiple messages you want to convey, it is often better to make multiple graphs. Overview figures can be helpful to show similarities or differences in trends and patterns, but do not blindly add unrelated aspects together.

Once you have determined your message, you need to choose what type of figure you are going to make. The figure type depends on the message you want to convey and your data. For graphs specifically, the type variables you want to plot determine the most suitable graph type as well. To help you choose a suitable figure, several types of graphs and their characteristics were discussed, as well as mapping conventions, and the use of photos. If you are looking for a more specific graph type, you can use online databases such as Matplotlib library. You can also look at the types of figures used in peer-reviewed papers, especially when they are in your research field and use similar data to yours.