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Making Great Scientific Figures: Tips for Entomology Students

Simplified phylogeny with insect silhouettes

All icons are from PhyloPic.org. Mantoida nitida Newman (license). Petrobius brevistylis Carpenter by Birgit Lang, Somatochlora tenebrosa Say by Gareth Monger, Palomena prasina (L.) by Dave Angelini, and Trachypachus gibbsii Leconte by T. Michael Keesey and Yves Bousquet (license).

By Sandra R. Schachat

Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series contributed by the ESA Student Affairs Committee. See other posts by and for entomology students here at Entomology Today.

As the COVID-19 pandemic has spread, people all around the world have become a lot more aware of scientific graphs. Two visualizations have become iconic over the past few weeks. The first is the conceptual illustration of how “flattening the curve” can save lives:

Flatten the curve, raise the line graph

Image courtesy of RCraig09 via Wikipedia. Source.

The second is the graph of cumulative COVID-19 deaths by country:

If you don’t have a TV, you’ve seen these images on social media. If you don’t have a Facebook or Twitter account, you’ve seen them in newspapers and magazines. Clearly, scientific figures have the power to convey trends in empirical data and to communicate theoretical concepts. Not only can figures help you get your point across, they can capture your audience’s attention, convince your audience to care about your research, and help your audience remember your findings and ideas.

Sandra R. Schachat

Sandra R. Schachat

Now that COVID-19 has brought graphs to the forefront of our minds, it’s a great time to think about how entomology students can improve the figures in our conference presentations and manuscripts. As entomologists, we can’t just reformat our figures to make them look like the beautiful COVID-19 figures out there—our data are too different from epidemiological data. We need to start from the beginning and ask ourselves: what overarching goal drives us to create each figure that we make, and how can we format each figure to achieve that goal?

Learning to make scientific figures is different from other skills we learn in graduate school. Our advisors are great resources for learning about science, and often help us with writing; we also have plenty of entomology and scientific-writing classes to choose from. And of course, we can learn more about entomology and scientific writing at ESA’s Annual Meeting and Branch Meetings. But students don’t routinely receive guidance from our advisors or universities about how to make compelling scientific figures. I hope this post will inspire you to check out some of the great online resources that can teach you to communicate visually.

Tip #1: Make Figures Early and Often

Think about your favorite scientific paper: you probably can’t remember a single sentence word for word, but chances are you can envision at least one figure from that paper in your mind’s eye. We spend more time writing manuscripts than making figures, but figures are what our audience remembers best.

So don’t wait until the last minute to make your figures—make them as early as you can. A great technique is to plan your manuscripts and presentations around your figures; if you make a bunch of figures and write each sentence of your manuscript to describe a feature of one of your figures, this will help you write efficiently and keep your manuscript focused. By making your figures as early as possible and then continually revising them as you refine your conclusions (just as you would continually revise text in a manuscript or a PowerPoint presentation), you’ll end up with polished, professional, compelling images.

Tip #2: Don’t Limit Figures to Your Results Section

When you have 2,974 data points, the only efficient way to present your data is with a figure. Depending on the type of data, you might use a histogram or a scatterplot. But you can also make figures without any underlying data to tell a story in the Introduction, Methods, and Discussion sections of your manuscript or presentation. Think back to the “Flatten the Curve” image that you saw at the top of this post. The axes aren’t labeled; the goal of that image is to convince you to care about a topic, not to present empirical data.

Let’s say you’re interested in the differences in body size between ants that live at the tops of trees and ants that live lower on the tree trunks. Let’s say that there have been nine previous studies about this topic, but your study will be the most comprehensive or will examine a new habitat. In your Introduction, you could summarize those previous studies with a long paragraph or in a table with nine rows that look like these:

Citation # tree spp. # trees/sp. # ant spp. # ants/sp. Result p-value
Smith 1997 3 10 25 100 null 0.4276
Jones 2002 2 30 37 200 canopy 0.0372

Alternatively, you could summarize those studies with a figure. This 5-minute video walks through the steps of summarizing previous studies with a simple figure that tells a story:

Tip #3: Keep Track of Figures That Inspire You

It’s easy to find a great figure in a published paper, think “I should use that color scheme for my next figure” or “I should use that layout for my next figure,” and then forget all about it by the time you actually make your next figure.

Luckily, reference management software such as Zotero allows you to use collections, tags, and notes to keep track of any features you’d like within the contents of your reference library. You can create a tag for papers with great figures or you can put them all into a collection, and you can use notes to jot down the page numbers with your favorite images.

Tip #4: Find the Right Software

Sample ggplot graph

A graph made in the R package ggplot2. Graph by Sandra Schachat.

Most entomology students make their figures with Microsoft Excel or with specialized wrappers such as the ggplot2 package for R. (See the graph above for an example of a graph created in ggplot2.) There’s a rather steep learning curve for ggplot2 and other command-line wrappers, and it also takes a lot of experience to make stunning graphs in Excel.

Luckily, entomology students can use free software that data scientists and journalists already rely on. The software options listed below require no coding. They’re as easy to use as Microsoft PowerPoint and you’ll get the hang of using them within an hour or two.

Data Illustrator is a free option to make graphs for your manuscripts and presentations and RawGraphs is a free option to make magazine-style images (like the graphs in National Geographic) that work great on websites, on social media, and in graphical abstracts.

Students can easily access paid software as well. Tableau is the gold standard point-and-click software for data visualization, and students can use it for free. If you want to make animated graphics for conference presentations, social media, or your personal website, you can use Flourish for free if you’re comfortable making your data public.

Tip #5: Label Your Figures with Insect Silhouettes

Even if you’re just presenting data—if you’re plotting a histogram of species counts per site or plotting population size against degree days—look for opportunities to annotate your graphs with silhouettes of the insects that you study. In the very simplified phylogeny at the top of this post, I’ve added silhouettes of representative Apterygota, Paleoptera, Polyneoptera, Paraneoptera, and Holometabola.

Most of my audience knows what Paleoptera are, but it’s nice to have an illustration for readers who might not. And even for readers who are familiar with all of the scientific terms in this figure, the insect silhouettes make the figure nicer to look at and easier to digest.

PhyloPic is the go-to source for silhouettes that can be used in scientific publications, but it can be a bit tricky to navigate. The Noun Project also has lots of icons that are great for infographics and scientific communication. If you use silhouettes from either of these websites, be sure to credit the artist who made the image.

The bad news is that lots of insect groups are missing from PhyloPic, but the good news is that creating these silhouettes is a great way to learn how to use vector graphics software such as Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, and Affinity Designer. So if your favorite insects don’t have silhouettes in PhyloPic, consider making the silhouettes yourself and sharing them with the world!

Tip #6: Use Free Educational Resources

Learning to make great graphs takes time and effort. But you don’t have to figure it all out on your own: there are plenty of free resources on the web. This chapter of Modern Statistics for Modern Biology shows you the best way to present common data types, and includes the R code to reproduce the graphs yourself with ggplot2. Science journalist Peter Aldhous taught a class on data visualization and put all of his materials online for free. Your university library may also have helpful books such as Visual Strategies: A Practical Guide to Graphics for Scientists & Engineers and more general texts such as The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization.

Entomology students don’t receive formal training in making scientific figures. Like all skills, this takes practice and dedication. But a small investment of your time can really pay off: beautiful, compelling graphs are a great tool for communicating your research.

Sandra R. Schachat is a Ph.D. candidate in geology at Stanford University and is a member of the ESA Student Affairs Committee and the ESA Committee on Diversity and Inclusion. She earned her master’s degree in entomology at Mississippi State University and her bachelor’s degree in art history and archaeology at the University of Maryland. Email: schachat@stanford.edu.

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