Skills Earth Sciences

Figures and Tables

Figures and tables are an essential part of scientific texts, especially in geoscience. They serve to visualize results, concepts, models, and field settings, and readers often skip to look at figures and tables as soon as they have an idea what the text is about and what it wants to achieve. Figures and tables therefore comprise one of the most important parts of your scientific text and it is worthwhile to spend time to visualize, annotate, and caption your work as comprehensibly and appealing as possible7.

Preferably, you make all the figures you use yourself. This way, you can specifically adapt your figures to your research and data, and your figures will not show any irrelevant information. If you want to use figures from other sources, make sure to obey copyright restrictions and reference properly to the source. Sometimes, it is also necessary to ask permission when you want to use somebody else’s figures. Only use high quality copies, and never include low quality scans or photographs. For more information and theory on using figures in science, see Visualisation.

Figures should be integrated into your main body of text as much as possible. Only add figures to your appendices when they are much too big to add to the main text (e.g. geological maps), or when they are part of supplementary materials that do not display your main results7. Incorporate figures in chronological order, only after referring to them in your text. Make sure to refer to all figures as soon as it is appropriate, so that readers can then continue on reading with the results shown in your figure in mind. There should not be too much overlap between the results shown in the figures and those discussed in the text; they should be stand-alone components that contribute to each other’s value. There is no need to explain in your text in detail what is shown in the figures you refer to: all relevant information should be given in the figure captions.

Figure captions should be concise yet complete, including a description of the subject that is visualized, the location of the map/photograph in relation to an earlier figure, or explanations of abbreviations. Sometimes, figure captions may include a minor interpretation of the observations visualized. Generally, figure captions are presented below the figure, and tables consist of a heading above the table as well as a technical description below7. If you use or base your figure on somebody else’s work, reference them accordingly and mention your adaptations, if applicable.

(Field) photographs often need to be annotated for the reader to understand the features visualized7. In fact, a figure in a scientific text is often a combination of a photograph and your field sketch. If the scale on your photographs is not clear, you can digitally add a scale bar as you would in any other figure.

  • Keep a consistent formatting for your figures where possible.
  • Include a legend for each figure, as well as spatial references such as coordinates, a north arrow, and a scale.
  • Think about the scale that your figure will be presented at (e.g. A4 print, A0 poster) and adapt your annotations and font sizes accordingly.
  • Reference and acknowledge other’s contributions (adaptations from figures, photographers, etc.).
  • State clearly when you have made photographs/figures yourself.
  • Describe in your captions what maps you used as base layers, e.g., and the coordinate system applied.
  • Include explanations of abbreviations and measurement units in both tables and figures.