Most of us know this story by now.
We spend months writing and revising our manuscript to perfection. We feel proud of our work, and we’re certain our target journal will roll out the red carpet and embrace it with open arms.
Alas, something unexpected happens. . .
We hit a massive roadblock at the tail-end of the manuscript submission process, simply because we don’t have a “graphical abstract.”
“A graphical what?!” we exclaim, throwing our arms in the air. “What on earth IS this thing preventing us from submitting our amazing manuscript? Graphical abstract sounds like a fancy way of saying ‘giant waste of time!’”
It’s OK. Breathe. . . you’re about to learn exactly how important this “waste of time” really is, and how to nail it right the first time.
It’s true… graphical abstracts have a critical place and a purpose in the publishing process. And it’s true that more and more journals are requiring them for a reason.
In this post, Dr. Tullio Rossi, Science Communicator and Founder of Animate Your Science, explains the purpose of graphical abstracts, what they should look like, and how you can easily create one to stay competitive with your research.
What on earth is a graphical abstract?
Let’s start by clarifying what a graphical abstract (GA) is NOT.
Imagine this. . . it’s late at night, you’ve spent hours reformatting your manuscript to fit the guidelines of your target journal, and you want nothing more than to hit that SUBMIT button, go to bed, and pray that your manuscript is accepted.
Then at the last minute, something really (really!) frustrating happens. Your target journal requires a “graphical abstract” to be submitted along with your paper, and you can’t move forward without one! What do you do?
You have three choices:
1) Scream and damn the day you decided to become an academic.
2) Design a graphical abstract from scratch (remember, it’s half-past midnight already).
Or... 3) Grab the prettiest figure from your paper and pretend it’s a graphical abstract.
Look, chances are you’re not a graphic designer, and creating a masterpiece with PowerPoint is out of the question. So I’m certain you’d choose option 1 or option 3. . . and then pay a VERY steep price for it.
The demands on scientists are extremely high, but let’s get one thing straight: a graphical abstract should not be a copy of the best figure in your paper. NEVER!
What’s the Purpose of a Graphical Abstract?
Now that we’ve clarified what a GA should not be, let’s nail down its purpose.
A graphical abstract is used to visually and concisely summarise your manuscript and its main message. How it works depends on who is reading.
If your peers are reading: A GA becomes a promotional tool that positions your paper to stand out on social media and elsewhere. As the name suggests, a GA has the same purpose as a traditional abstract. But with 7,000 peer-reviewed articles being published daily, nobody has the time to read a 250 word abstract. Much like a movie poster, a GA grabs attention and drives traffic to your paper. The more ‘buzz’ your paper gets, the more citations it’ll attract down the line.
If a non-academic is reading: They don’t speak the scientific jargon, and the blocks of text and the boring black-and-white figures just don’t do it for them. (Can you blame them?) With a well-designed GA, these people can finally become acquainted with, understand and appreciate, your research. A GA extends the reach of your research beyond your peers. That said, not all GA’s are effective for the general public. For instance, if you don’t provide context and leave out the jargon and p-values, it’ll be incomprehensible to the lay person.
Does it really work?
Graphical abstracts have been shown to improve the reach of new scientific publications.
One study used Twitter to quantify the effect of including a graphical abstract in the promotion of new publications. The researchers compared Twitter posts with and without GAs over one year, using each post as its own control. They found that the reach of posts with GAs were dramatically greater than those without. Tweets with GAs received a 7.7-fold increase in Twitter impressions, a 8.4-fold increase in retweets, and a 2.7-fold increase in article visits.
What does a graphical abstract look like?
When it comes to GA’s, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter template. Scientists and artists from around the world have explored a variety of approaches and styles. Which works best depends on who you want to reach — your audience.
The first question you should ask yourself is, who do I want to reach with this GA? Am I just interested in reaching my small community of peers interested in my obscure science or am I interested in going beyond? Do I want the average Joe and Jane on the street to be able to understand this GA? This is a critical question that will determine the content and look of your graphical abstract.
There is lots of research out there that is hyper-technical and of interest to a limited number of experts only, if that’s your case, great! You know who you are talking to: experts.
If you feel that this is your case, I have a surprise for you. You have total freedom in the style of graphical abstract you can use. Because your audience has an expert level of understanding of the subject you have the freedom to go technical or not. You can decide to show them complex diagrams and p-values or hook them in with a funny comic with a highly nerdy joke that maybe 8 people in the world will understand. It is up to you.
Hold on…Before you happily dump p-values and absurd jargon on your GA I want to remind you of something. You might be missing out on something important - the opportunity of making your research understandable to another scientist from a different discipline. Let’s say you just published a paper about a new algorithm that can automate satellite image analysis. If you make your GA understandable by your satellite buddies only, you’ll miss out on great opportunities. There might be geologists and ecologists out there who would love to use your algorithm, if only they knew it existed! You see, by lowering the technical bar in your GA you will be able to extend the reach and potential impact of your paper. Imagine how many more citations your paper could get!
Open Access publishing is a super trendy topic. The idea or removing paywalls is great. However, I am gonna ask you, is this really enough to make science truly“open”.The paywall is one barrier but not the only one. The language barrier is still standing…I argue that graphical and video abstracts could be very useful tools to finally make research papers more accessible and therefore science - truly open. How? It is all about where we set the entry bar.
Here are some key tips to make sure that a GA is understandable to everyone
Context: you need to provide some context because otherwise a non-expert won’t be able to appreciate the relevance of your research
No jargon: Some people call it Jargon Monoxide because it asphyxiates audiences. It is true, not being able to understand a few words will cause the reader to switch of and think that this is just not for them.
So what? The reason why your research is relevant might be obvious to your peers but it is definitely not obvious to Joe and Jane. Tell them in plain English why this matters to their lives.
Styles of graphical abstracts
Let’s now talk about the fun stuff! Style!
Although there are no concrete rules about what a GA should look like, there are a few styles out there, and each one fits a certain audience - sitting somewhere on the Experts-Public spectrum.
Let’s have a look at a few examples of some different styles.
Style 1: The Classic Diagram
This is a more traditional style of GA that’s been around for a while. Using GAs like this wasn’t uncommon in the chemistry field a few decades ago, given that chemistry is such a visual topic.
You’d notice that there is no background context and it’s full of technical jargon. If the target audience is other experts then great, they’ll get it. But this is not suitable for any other kind of audience.
Style 2: The p-value aficionado
This is called a ‘Visual Abstract’. It’s very popular in the medical field, and usually consists of vertical or horizontal panels. It’s a little more accessible than the previous style, with some nice related icons and some text to guide the reader. But, it’s still geared towards other scientists.
Style 3: The Infographic
This is an infographic style, and is probably the most versatile. In this example, it starts with a sentence that provides some background context, and the images are clear and interesting. So this is more accessible for the general public. However, its content is still clearly focussed on being informative about the science, and provides a good middle ground on our Expert-Public spectrum.
Style 4: The Comic Strip
The last style is a comic style and is clearly aimed at the general public. It’s visually appealing with some custom graphics, and it uses humour to convey the key scientific message: opening up the target audience to engage with everyone.
How can I design one?
Before we dive in, let’s establish one unbreakable rule.
Your GA will be CLEAR and CONCISE. Got it? Good.
Space on your GA is a valuable resource, so anything that breaks this rule will be executed! Hmmm… I mean excluded.
What’s that? You’ve got an awesome multi-dimensional plot with 8 colours? Great! Keep it in the paper, that’s where it belongs. Got a beautiful table with 20 rows of significant p-values? Amazing! Keep it in the paper, that’s where it belongs. Keep this rule in mind as we work through the following steps.
Step 1: Choosing your audience
As we’ve seen above, there are many ways to make a GA, and the most important thing that determines how your GA will look is the target audience.
Before anything, ask yourself what you would like to get out of this graphical abstract.
Do you want your research to be noticed by other experts in your field? Maybe you have a new technique that will influence the way other scientists conduct research.
Or, do you have something that will engage the wider community? Have you discovered a new treatment for people with asthma, and you want to get the word out? Perhaps to the media?
Maybe your target it somewhere in between.
If you’re unsure, we recommend erring towards a more accessible message. It will still get the attention of the experts (after all, they’re already interested in your topic), but it won’t alienate the general public who could benefit from your research findings.
Step 2: Planning the content
Now that you have your target audience in mind, let’s decide on the content, starting with the text.
Remember this is a graphical abstract, so your text will be minimal.
You do need some text to provide context and to guide the reader through the graphics, but keep it as short as possible: definitely less than 80 words. And anyway, the clearer your graphics are, the fewer words you’ll need.
What to write
We’re advocates of the And - But - Therefore format of storytelling invented by Dr Randy Olson.
The ‘And’ is the context (background), the ‘But’ is the hook that holds the reader’s attention (knowledge gap), and the ‘Therefore’ is what you found (results and conclusions). You can read more about this format of storytelling here. You’ll notice that this is the rough format of a written abstract anyway, but let’s leave out the methods: if your reader is interested, they can find them in all their nitty-gritty glory in the full paper.
How to write it
If you’re talking to experts, you might have some technical words, but if you’re engaging with the public you’ll need to stay away from all jargon. Some call it “jargon monoxide poisoning” for a good reason. It really asphyxiates your reader!
Step 3: Concept
Crack your knuckles because now we’re getting to work on how your GA will look. On paper, or in your design software, make the first draft.
If you’re particularly arty, roughly draw the key graphics that you’ll polish up later. If not, don’t worry, just keep in mind where you want to put in the graphics, and afterwards, we’ll track down the best the Internet has to offer.
Ask yourself where your GA is going to be distributed most, because this will determine its size. If you’re submitting it to a journal, you’ll need to follow their instructions. Or maybe you just want to make a splash on social media. Twitter, Instagram etc. each have their own preferred sizes, and this determines whether or not your GA will be cropped when viewed on mobile devices etc. Decide which platform will give your GA the best chance of being seen, and size it accordingly.
Even though we are working mainly with graphics, we still tend to read left to right, and top to bottom. Remember, we’re designing this to be easy on your audience. If you have a key piece of context that you want to be read/seen first, don’t put it in the bottom right corner. Also, panels are a nice way to structure your GA, and arrows or numbers can be used to direct the reader.
No, this isn’t astronaut terminology. Negative space just means ‘breathing space’ - space on your GA that’s not filled with stuff. This makes it seem less busy and clearer (CLEAR and CONCISE!). So, leave space around the edges of your GA, and between its different elements.
Step 4: Designing
The most important part. This is what first grabs the reader’s attention when they start scrolling through Twitter, still half-asleep, while they eat breakfast. Not Figure 3.1A of your manuscript, this is a separate image intentionally chosen to best summarise the theme, or your main point.
If you are a design wizard, then congratulations, you can go ahead and design your graphic in your illustration software. Not so savvy? No worries, you can hire a professional scientific illustrator, or you can use some of the great resources available on the web. The Creative Commons Search Engine is a great way to search the web for free legally-usable (and modifiable) content (not just images). PixaBay, is another good place for some freebies, and PNG Tree is handy too. Just be careful of any attribution requirements, some free services request that you credit them - but it’s a small price to pay in exchange for a great vector graphic. For photos, Unsplash is great - and they require no attribution, YES!
The reason we’re choosing your image first, is because unless you’re making your own from scratch, the image will determine which colours you can use for the rest of the GA. We’ll go into more detail in the next section.
If you’re using an image you found on the web, then this step is easy. You’re going to sample the colours from that image using the Eyedropper Tool. It exists in every design software (even Microsoft PowerPoint!). Doing this will keep a consistent palette of colours throughout your GA.
Choosing colours from scratch? It is great fun to go freestyle but there are literally an infinite number of colours out there, so how do we choose the 3 to 5 that we need?
Simple. Search “infographic colour palette” in Google Images and find one that you like and that is appropriate to your theme. Marine biology? Well then, you can’t go wrong with some shades of blue. Plant ecologist? How about a couple of greens and a nice brown? Once you’ve found a colour combination that you like, use the Eyedropper tool to sample them, and hey presto you’ve got your palette.
Pro tip 1: You can even install an eyedropper tool on your web browser. ColorZilla is a good one for Google Chrome.
Pro tip 2: Adobe Colour Wheel is a nice way of getting complementary colours based on colour theory - don’t worry, it’s easy to use.
OK, background, we want something eye-catching, so that means a photo, right? Nope! A texture? Double nope. Anything too busy will make your text and graphics hard to read.
A solid colour is perfect. We can be a bit more adventurous than white, but let’s not get carried away: save the hot pink for your underwear drawer.
Your GA will probably only be read on a screen.
This means you need a font without serif, that is sans serif.
Not only does sans serif sound cool (hey, look at you speaking French), these fonts are easier to read and appear more modern. So it’s goodbye Mr. Times New Roman, hello Mrs. Arial.
Comic Sans is sans serif, does that mean you can use it? NOPE. Just don’t! Every time a scientist uses Comic Sans a graphic designer dies ☠️
What about size? Well, it depends on how large you make your GA in your software. Here’s a guide. Make your GA full-screen on your computer monitor. Can you read the text from a metre or two back? If so, then your text is probably big enough.
Do you need a title? Not necessarily. You might not have enough space. But, if you think it’ll help your GA to be CLEAR and CONCISE, go for it. You have my blessing.
If your GA is shared and used by other people, then you want your audience to be able to find your work. Include the title of your paper, the names of the authors, the year of publication, the journal, and the DOI. Don’t worry about a URL, it will be too long and the DOI is enough.
If you are a Microsoft aficionado, you can use PowerPoint to make your GA - just be aware that it has its limits. If you fancy your design skills and have time to invest in the steep learning curve, use Affinity Designer, Adobe Illustrator or Indesign. But if you want something more user-friendly (and free!) then check out Canva.
Step 5: Getting ready to release your GA into the wild
Congratulations on putting together your masterpiece. This is new territory, so you should be proud. But what’s next?
Take a break and come back to your GA with fresh eyes. Note what your eyes are drawn to first. Is this the first thing you want your audience to see? If so, then you’ve planned your GA well.
Do the elements of your GA align well? Good alignment will give your GA a professional look, and it’ll keep my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder under control too, so thanks.
Get some feedback
Different people interpret images, symbols and icons differently. So something you think is obvious might not be to others. Remember the first part of our unbreakable rule? ‘CLEAR’.
Get feedback from people within your target audience. Your friends, if you’re targeting the public, and your colleagues if you’re targeting other academics. Even if this is the case, your friends are a good tool here too. If they can understand it, then you’ve done your job well.
If you designed your poster with professional software, you’ll have the ability to control the colour profile. Nothing complicated, there are two options: RGB and CMYK. The first one is for digital use, and the second one is for printing — pick the first one. That’s all you need to know.
Saving the file
Always keep your source file, in case you need to edit it later. But save your output as a .PNG (this is best for screens). If this isn’t available a .JPEG is good too.
Posting to social media
When posting on social media don’t forget to include the URL link pointing to the article’s page. This will not only help drive traffic to your paper but will also make your social media post visible by the Altmetric algorithm. If you don’t know what Altmetric is…let us fill you in, check out our awesome infographic.
Include any relevant hashtags in your post, and tag your co-authors. You should mention the journal, your institute and funding bodies too. This is not only good practice but could lead to a powerful re-tweet by an account with a large following. Sprinkle your post with some emojis and serve.
This is how you DIY graphical abstract design. We hope you found this useful!
If you don’t have time to do it yourself, we can help you.
At Animate Your Science we help researchers from all around the world stand out and have an impact.
Our team of science communicators and designers can turn your science into an infographic or animation that will turn heads.
To explore how we can help you to unleash your impact, click here get in touch using our contact form