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Graphical Abstracts: Where to Find Illustration and Design Help for Your Next Paper

graphical abstract example

Like any good figure or infographic, a graphical abstract can convey key concepts from a research article in a simple, attention-grabbing visual format, such as in this example from a November 2021 article in the Journal of Economic Entomology, created using BioRender.com. (Image originally published in Schmidt-Jeffris et al 2021, “Nontarget Impacts of Herbicides on Spiders in Orchards,” Journal of Economic Entomology)

By Sarah Elzay, Ph.D.

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.

Sarah Elzay, Ph.D.

Sarah Elzay, Ph.D.

Like infographics or figures that convey a complex concept, well-made graphical abstracts provide an attention-grabbing visual that quickly summarizes the major findings of a manuscript. Communicating science effectively is critical, and graphical abstracts can play an important role in sharing research findings. When shared on social media platforms such as Twitter, graphical abstracts may even increase retweets and article visits. Whether this increases readership or understanding, though, has yet to be studied.

To be honest, the graphical abstract may be my least favorite part of completing a manuscript prior to publication. Preparing a manuscript is a long process, and the final graphic needed to summarize the research and hook the readers often leaves me in the throes of imposter syndrome.

But can it be imposter syndrome if I do not have a background, education, or experience in graphic design? Perhaps I am just an imposter! I have never trained as a graphic designer or an artist. Only through a decade of brute force have I learned to use R to generate figures that, although improving, are far from exceptional. Limping along using PowerPoint to create graphical abstracts leaves me searching for a better, more professional option.

From subscription tools to paying individual designers, many alternatives to my own shoddy designs are available. Designers with training and skills that eclipse mine may help me better communicate my research with the public. These alternatives cost anywhere from hundreds of dollars to just five or ten dollars—or even completely free. This list may not be exhaustive, but I hope to share some alternatives with you that may provide a good option depending on your financial circumstances.

High-End Custom Designs

One option that offers tailored design work is Wiley Editing Services. It charges $500 for custom designs that are completed within 10 days. I haven’t spoken with anyone directly who has used this service, but it seems like a good option if you do not have financial restrictions and need a quick turnaround. A personal hesitation is that Wiley publishes more than 1,600 journals, and it surely receives at least some of the fees a researcher pays to publish in those journals. An additional $500 for a graphical abstract seems like double dipping.

Another option that is a bit more affordable is Enago. Like Wiley, it provides an abundance of editing during manuscript preparation, including graphical abstract design. The cost is $350 with a 10-day guaranteed delivery and $450 for a 7-day delivery. It’s another good option if you need an abstract in a hurry and don’t have financial limitations.

graphical abstract example

Like any good figure or infographic, a graphical abstract can convey key concepts from a research article in a simple, attention-grabbing visual format, such as in this example from a February 2022 article in the Journal of Economic Entomology. (Image originally published in Pazini et al 2022, “Field Assessment of Oryzophagus oryzae (Coleoptera: Curculionidae) Preference and Performance on Selected Rice Cultivars,” Journal of Economic Entomology)

Subscription Services

A subscription services is an excellent option if you anticipate purchasing or designing several graphics. Services like Mind the Graph have templates and illustrations that you can use with a watermark (free) or without (paid). It offers varying subscriber levels (student, researcher, and teams/labs) depending on how many graphics or how much designer help you might want. The subscriber levels are affordable ($14-25 monthly, or cheaper if you subscribe for a year). Before you sign up, check the gallery for illustrations that might be helpful to you. I did not find many that would be helpful to me, but I could request new illustrations as a subscriber. This an important consideration for entomologists, as much of the illustrations seem health-science focused.

Biorender is another subscription service, with similar prices, ranging from free to $100 depending on your needs. Again, check the illustrations gallery before signing up.

Likely many more subscription services are available. These services seem attractive if you have long-term plans to get help with your own designs. The cost of such services may be difficult for students, however. It may be worth speaking with your PI to see if they can subscribe the entire lab or team so that you and your lab mates can take advantage of the services.

Vector Graphic Editors

For scientists who also have artistic and technical skills, vector graphic editors such as Affinity Designer, Inkscape, Adobe Illustrator, and, I am sure, many more, are available. These options range from free (Inkscape) to very expensive. It’s possible your institution already pays for a license that you could access—it is certainly worth checking with your library or IT department. Graphic design software is a wonderful option if you have a certain skill set. Personally, it is not best for my needs—but maybe one day in the future!

Hire a Designer

Scores of talented artists and designers are out there that can be hired to create an excellent graphical abstract. Several online platforms allow you to find and hire a designer, such as Fiverr, Upwork, Guru, and many more. But, buyer beware: These sites range from highly regulated to not regulated at all, so watch out for scammers.

Of course, you can also find designers without using a platform that will take a percentage cut. This is my favorite option. Through Twitter, I have found countless excellent designers and artists that can create a graphical abstract or illustration. Just search graphical abstract designs in Twitter and you will be inundated with tweets and threads that can help you find the right designer. One very helpful thread is from @IamSciComm:

The thread is an excellent source to find designers. Although more expensive than a platform like Fiverr, the ability to support a designer directly seems well worth the extra cost.

Finally, you may be surrounded by talented people that can help you design your graphical abstract (or other visuals). Try asking the students in your department or other departments across campus if they are willing to help you design a graphical abstract. This “shop local” option may be particularly accessible if you are financially limited. Having asked a few students in my own department, the pricing was quite low (although the estimate was rough without a completed manuscript to show them!).

Graphical abstracts are an excellent way to share your research quickly and effectively. From hiring a designer to subscribing, there is likely an affordable option that can help you get by without spending hours on a subpar graphical abstract. Reach out to your fellow students, library, IT department, and PI to find out if designers or designer programs are available to you. As I mentioned, this list is not exhaustive, but I hope it gives you some options to consider when you are thinking about your next graphical abstract.

Learn More in Vancouver

Finally, the ESA Student Activities Committee is hosting a Mini-Workshop at the 2022 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia in Vancouver, November 13-16. We have invited four speakers to share their expertise on how to create excellent graphical abstracts. Please stay tuned for more details!

Best of luck on your future designs!

Sarah Elzay, Ph.D., is a postdoctoral fellow in integrative biology at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater, Oklahoma, and the 2020-2022 Plant-Insect Ecosystems Section Representative to the ESA Student Affairs Committee. Email: selzay@okstate.edu.

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