Designing, Producing, and Communicating Effective Scientific Graphical Abstracts
By Jacqueline Maille and Sarah DePaolo 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.
The 2022 Joint Annual Meeting of the Entomological Societies of America, Canada, and British Columbia in Vancouver, ESA Student Affairs Committee (SAC) hosted a mini-workshop, “Designing, Producing, and Communicating Effective Scientific Graphical Abstracts.” Approximately 30 students and professionals attended.
Graphical abstracts are increasingly vital to publication and communication of research, but often entomologists do not receive specialized training in creating effective graphical abstracts. The workshop was designed to begin closing the gap of what graphical abstracts are, expose entomologists to a variety of graphic and illustration tools, and open discussion with two panelists, Jacki Whisenant, a M.Sc. student and scientific illustrator in the Department of Entomology at the University of Wisconsin, and Rob Morrison, Ph.D., research scientist in the Stored Product Insect Research Unit at the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, who shared their experiences and recommended software and processes for making well-received graphical abstracts.
Participants in the mini-workshop received a handout of graphical abstract resources as they left the conference; however, for those who could not attend, the SAC wanted to share key tips and suggestions from the workshop and additional resources.
What is a Graphical Abstract?
As Sarah highlighted last year in “Graphical Abstracts: Where to Find Illustration and Design Help for Your Next Paper,” graphical abstracts are becoming more popular not only for manuscript publication but also to effectively communicate science to broader audiences on social media. Therefore, the SAC workshop committee defines a graphical abstract as “an accessible aid for academics and non-academics to visually and concisely consume the summary of your manuscript or research.”
Graphical Abstract Basics and Common Layouts
Keeping this definition in mind, the workshop opened with the importance of checking the publisher or media site’s guidelines for graphical abstracts. Guidelines vary, and it is necessary to check before spending time to create something that may not be usable.
The panelists highlighted that the content of a graphical abstract should represent your research or message concisely through images that are accessible. Any images used in a graphical abstract may have cultural significance or meanings, so be mindful while selecting images to convey a message. The content of the graphical abstract should not be wordy, and it was recommended for any text included to contain less than 80 words. The content creator of the graphical abstract may want to explore several design options including different layouts, color combinations, fonts, alignments, etc., which may reduce time during the editing phase.
The workshop panelists stressed the importance of getting the graphical abstracts reviewed by a broad audience to ensure a successful editing process of the final graphical abstract to ensure the research or message is communicated. Above all, keeping the audience in mind is imperative to creating an excellent graphical abstract.
Now that some tips and tricks have been highlighted, how does one decide a layout? Some manuscript publishers provide a premade layout for graphical abstracts. However, a few other basic layouts were drafted by workshop organizers for the attendees and panelists to discuss and explore, including:
- Diagram: Minimal background context, with jargon and visuals. Audience: experts of field. See figure 1.
- P-value: Vertical and horizontal layouts, more accessible, with some icons and text. Audience: experts to knowledgeable people in field. See figure 2.
- Infographic: Less emphasis on data but more on message. Audience: experts to lay members of field. See figure 3.
- Comic strip: Whimsical way to convey a scientific message. Audience: public. See figure 4.
A message cannot be communicated effectively if it is not accessible. Using a color wheel in conjunction with a color blindness simulator for images and graphs can help ensure information is broadly conveyed. Meanwhile, layout conveys the story: utilize negative space, readable fonts (sans serif fonts are most accessible), and consistent formatting and emphasize important points with bold and concise bullet points.
Formatting (numbers, arrows, etc.) helps intuitively guide the reader through the order of elements in the graphical abstract. Graphic contrast can ensure information is conveyed and emphasized. Font sizes should reflect topic headings (largest) to more detailed text (smallest). With this information in mind, remember to try to keep word count to a minimum. Using the tools linked above can help others access your research or message.
Most people use Windows or Mac operating systems, but Linux is still a popular open-source option. As the audience pointed out, digitally drawing can be difficult, but using a tablet or digital drawing surface can ease the complexity. Tablets can be quite expensive, but some high-quality, lower-cost options for drawing pads and pens can be found for under $100. Once hardware is established, software is where the magic happens.
Some software programs can provide start-to-finish custom designs that are often quite expensive (e.g., Wiley Editing Services). However, template services such as Canva and Mind the Graph help design a coherent finished product with ease and free membership options. Clip-art services provide excellent and often accessible artwork, many times free of charge. Examples include PhyloPic, The Noun Project, FreePik, Biorender, and Bioicons. Finally, hiring scientific artists is another option, whether that means hiring a talented lab mate or finding a designer online; if you have the ideas and resources, there are excellent designers out there.
Remember, review is key! Leaning on a supportive core group of peers that will review and help edit your graphic is invaluable. Another avenue of support is your university library. The university librarians can help you to better understand usage and creative commons licenses. Your library may also be a place to seek accessibility for some design licenses, such as Adobe Illustrator or Affinity.
- Additional resources shared by our panelists include:
- Scientific illustration advice from illustrator chemdye_si on Instagram
- Great thread on how to make graphical abstracts in PowerPoint by Robin Hayward, Ph.D. (@CanopyRobin), on Twitter
- Exhaustive tips and tricks for graphical abstracts by Nuria Melisa Morales García, Ph.D. (@NuriaMelisaMor1), on Twitter
- The ultimate guide to graphical abstracts by Juan Miguel Balbin, Ph.D., and Tullio Rossi, Ph.D.
The SAC workshop on designing, producing, and communicating effective scientific graphical abstracts was ultimately a success that sparked lively conversations on scientific communication. The SAC encourages student members to communicate any future mini-workshop ideas they would be interested in for continued learning and engagement.
Jacqueline Maille is a Ph.D. candidate in entomology at Kansas State University, current vice president of the KSU Popenoe Entomology Club, and North Central Branch representative and vice-chair of the ESA Student Affairs Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Sarah DePaolo Elzay, Ph.D.,is an assistant professor at Fort Hays State University. Email email@example.com.