Writing a journal article


Most people find it easier to read figures than tables. Figures therefore are an effective means of summarizing key findings. A convention is to describe the overall pattern in your findings in the text, and then refer to a figure for details.

For example, you might write: “Species composition changes systematically along a gradient of land use intensity (Fig. 2)” – and Figure 2 would then show the details of this gradient.

Or you might write: “Large companies often had explicit policies in place to enhance sustainability (Fig. 3a). By contrast, many small companies had policies for various aspects of sustainability (e.g. governing social issues) but these were rarely combined in an explicit framework for sustainability (Fig. 3b).”

In both of these examples, the text tells you the basics, and you can look at the figures to find out more.

Here’s a couple of bad examples:
“Figure 2 shows changes in species composition” – Figure 2 should not be the central part of the sentence, but something referred to at the end.
“Large companies had different ways of dealing with sustainability than small companies (Figure 3)” – this doesn’t tell you enough about what those different ways actually were.
In both cases, there is too little emphasis on writing good text to go with a good figure.

There are a few things to consider when preparing the figures themselves:

  • Use simple fonts (sans serif) and avoid ‘graph clutter’. So, for example, Times New Roman is not a good font for graphs, whereas Arial is a good font. Similarly, three-dimensional bar charts like Microsoft Excel can produce are full of graph clutter. Keep things minimal – whatever doesn’t contain information shouldn’t be in the graph.
  • Keep your things black and white, unless you are writing for a journal that uses colour figures (and note those often cost extra!)
  • Keep in mind the size of your figures. Make your figures as small as possible, and make sure that the fonts are readable in the size the figure will ultimately be printed in. Also, think about how many columns the table should take up. Journals tend to arrange their text in one, two or three columns. If you write for a two-column journal, it makes sense to come up with a figure that either takes up one column in width, or two columns in width.

Finally, figures need to have informative legends. Good legends are often quite long. Try to write legends, which (together with the figure) can pretty much stand alone. Legends that are very short often contain too little information. Especially for somebody who reads your paper quickly, it is very useful if your legend contains quite a lot of information. Note that legends for figures are placed below the figure. In a manuscript, they typically go on a separate page from the figures themselves.


Possible exercises:

  • Initially, don’t worry about software. Draw by hand what you want your figure to look like.
  • Then ask yourself if you can implement this figure yourself, or if you would need additional technical skills, or if there is a person you can ask to help with the figure.
  • If your ideal figure can’t be done easily, ask yourself if there is a slightly simpler version that you can do, which is almost as good. Don’t waste too much time on ‘the perfect figure’!

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