In the academic world, a research paper is the gateway into the mind of a scientist. For easy navigation, the information and data need to be effectively organized and represented. Tables and graphs are a good way of presenting data as they are easy to read and can be used to represent statistical data in a time- and space-effective manner. This is not surprising since the human brain is equipped to process visual data faster than text. Apart from helping the readers understand the published paper, the display items facilitate a faster review and publishing process as they give a quick overview of the study and its results.
Quite often, the results section of a scientific paper has detailed statistics and complex patterns. By utilizing graphs and tables, the author can explain the data concisely and reduce the length of the manuscript, preventing the reader from getting lost in the details. Another issue that comes up is the misinterpretation of results. Organizing information using figures and visual elements can help the reader clearly understand the data and avoid confusions.
However, every strong tool is a double-edged sword. When used wisely, tables and figures enhance the manuscript and adds to the readability, while poorly crafted and misplaced figures can hinder with the flow of the paper and reduce the overall quality. This article will help you understand how to effectively use tables and figures in your manuscript.
When to use figures?
This crucial decision begins at the initial stage of writing the manuscript. Use the following checklist:
1. Go through the requirements of the target journal. Every journal has an expected design pattern and specification of the number of figures.
2. Decide which information needs to be presented with a table, figure or plain text. This usually depends on the complexity and flow of the information. For example-if you are explaining a process, using a flow-chart figure is the best option, However, if you are explaining a model, using graphs can help you convey the relationships in the model better as compared to a table or text.
How to use figures?
1. Self-explanatory: Being self-explanatory should be the prime goal of a figure. Most readers go through the abstract and jump to the figures to understand the findings of the study. The author should make sure that the figures are packed with all the information necessary for the reader. This includes using keys wherever needed, easy-to-understand headings, axes labels and, axes values.
2. Refer, but don’t repeat: Many times, it is important to use previously stated information in a figure. In such cases, always add a reference note for the information, repeating the information will add unnecessary weight to the figure.
3. Consistency: Design and styling play an important role in the overall quality of the manuscript. Ensure consistency among your figures and tables. Use the same font style, font size, abbreviations, label across all figures. For example- a difference in an abbreviation can create confusion in the reader’s mind.
4. Informative title: Without a title, a figure looks incomplete and out of place. But adding a title is a task to be performed with brevity. A short and simple title is catchy and grabs the reader instantly. They draw attention towards the figure and convey its purpose. At the same time, it is important to note that in order to keep the title short, no essential information should be missed. Vague titles can mislead the reader and add confusion.
5. Journal guidelines: To make it a complete circle, we will end where we started- the target journal guidelines. Once you have finalized the figures, go back and check the requirements of the journal. Be careful of the tiny details like style of numbering, image resolution, file formats, etc.
Guidelines for tables:
1. Combine repetitive tables: Repetitive information can hinder with communication rather than improve it. So, remember to check all your tables and ensure that each table is an individual piece of information in your manuscript. If two tables or even parts of tables are explaining the same thing, combine them or delete one. There are always multiple ways of representing data and nowadays we have many tools to help us with this process.
2. Divide the data: After finishing up your tables, check if any table is presenting large amounts of information and looks too big. Looking at big tables with a smaller number of columns and rows might exhaust the reader in the beginning only. Divide such tables into smaller one categorically by adding more columns and rows to present the information more concisely.
3. Revisit appendix: If your manuscript has extensive tables with long columns and cluttered information, consider the idea of shifting the table to the appendix or supplementary section.
4. De-clutter: Sometimes, insufficient spacing between columns and rows makes the table look messy or crowded. Ensure enough spacing to have a spaced-out layout for the table.
Guidelines for figures:
1. Image clarity: The most troubling thing for a reader is getting intrigued by the title of the paper but scrolling down to see a blurred image. So, make sure that all elements of your figure are clear and comprehensible. You can easily achieve this by using standard font styles and sizes and ensure that the labels are readable. Don’t use coloured text on coloured backgrounds. Use either black or white to increase legibility.
2. Legends with key message: Figure legends are important components of a manuscript. They are a way of drawing the reader’s attention to the key message of the figure. They should explain the abbreviations and symbols clearly for better understanding of the figure.
3. Labels: A graph without labels is just a bunch of zig-zag lines and coloured boxes. Label the graph axes properly. Also, add labels to the sub-sections and schematics in the figures. Every element in a figure has a purpose, and that purpose should be conveyed by its label clearly.
4. Give specifics: The minute details of a figure- scale bars in images and maps, units of quantities, explanations of symbols used in formulas, – all these are easy to miss. But they complete the figure and leave no room for misinterpretation and doubts.
Finally, let us look at some examples of well-prepared tables and figures:
Table: This example1 shows how a table can be effectively used to organize information. The images incorporated into the table elegantly and the title that is crisp and to-the-point together make the information as clear as possible to the reader.
Figure: This example2 uses a 3D graph to show the relationship between the three components.
As you can see, the trick to a good figure or table lies in the crisp and neat presentation, and if prepared well, can be worth a thousand words.
Reference: “Tips on effective use of tables and figures in research papers” by Velany Rodrigues, Author, Editage Insights, viewed on 28 Oct 2021, https://www.editage.com/insights/tips-on-effective-use-of-tables-and-figures-in-research-papers?refer-type=article
1. Dynamic Analysis of Line Gear Pair Based on Numerical Manifold Method, Ding et al, Journal of Mechanical Engineering, 2021, DOI:10.5545/sv-jme.2021.7118
2. Studying the Performance of Cutting Carbon Fibre-Reinforced Plastic Using an Abrasive Water Jet Technique, Hussien, et al, Journal of Mechanical Engineering, 2021, DOI:10.5545/sv-jme.2021.7141