Use Clear Figures to Tell a Story With Your Data

April 10, 2019

Figures are central to a scientific manuscript. A clear figure with an informative figure legend should leave the reader with a general understanding of the experiment. In a recent webinar, Dr. Peggy Cotter shared some pointers to help alleviate challenges scientists experience while creating figures.  

Plan Figures Early (and Revisit)

Before you head to the bench or into the field, think about how you plan to visually represent your data.  Sketch out a couple of potential representations and then re-visit your experimental design. Discuss the ideas with your lab or mentor, and modify the design as necessary. As you piece together the story and identify a journal to prepare the manuscript for, review policies and requirements for the journal.  

Make Figures Adaptable

Scientists who adapt figures depending on their audience and medium (oral presentation/written publication) communicate their work more clearly. A figure in a peer-reviewed journal might be slightly different than the one used for a talk at Microbe, even though the conclusion is the same. It is also important to note that journals require distinct dimensions for figures (Note: ASM Journals allow format-neutral submissions). A vector-based software (e.g. Illustrator) allows you to bring several figures together to create a multi-panel figure. Users can then adjust the dimensions without re-making each individual figure. This can save hours of re-formatting.

Color Is Your Friend and Foe 

Utilizing color in a figure can allow the reader to view rich data side-by-side. However, it must be used with care. About 8% of your readers are red-green colorblind. Try to avoid using red and green in the same figure. Also remember that readers often print out manuscripts in black and white. Use different tones of the same color so that grayscale picks up the differences. Print out your figures in grayscale to make sure the differences are clear. 

Figure Legends are Rich with Details

A clear and thorough legend completes a figure. Key components of a figure legend are:
  • Title.
  • Brief explanation of the experimental design.
  • Descriptions of the rendering of the data.
  • What the data represent.
  • Replication number.
  • Statistical analyses.  
Even though it might seem redundant, repeating the main finding in the legend and in the results section is normal and serves to reinforce the take-home points.

Ethical Considerations 

Authors must ensure that figures accurately depict the original data. To ensure integrity of the scientific community, it is paramount that authors carefully construct figures and acknowledge any splicing or related modifications. When preparing figures for ASM journals, strictly adhere to the guidelines to avoid any red flags. 

Most importantly, the author must consider the key findings when they select the style and layout of the figure. Dr. Cotter notes, “Just because your lab has always presented data in one way, doesn’t mean that you can’t come up with a different way… that maybe is going to make your point a little stronger.” Creativity is key to the figure-making process and will make for informative and clear figures.


Author: Claire Wilson, M.S.

Claire Wilson, M.S.
Claire Wilson has been with ASM since July 2017 and supports online courses for students, faculty and early-career professionals. She also supports ASM Conference for Undergraduate Educators (ASMCUE).