Getting artsy with graphical abstracts for scientific journals

Scientific journals are trying to make their papers more appealing by creating a whole spectrum of research summaries including graphical abstracts, video abstracts, and plain language summaries. Here, I will focus on graphical abstracts since I’m about to design one for my very first paper published.

I’ve been looking for examples of graphical abstracts on Twitter to get a visual idea of what a graphical abstract is and what’s out there:

What’s a graphical abstract?

 “One single-panel image that is designed to give readers an immediate understanding of the takehome message of the paper. Its intent is to encourage browsing, promote interdisciplinary scholarship, and help readers quickly identify which papers are most relevant to their research interests.” Cell Press

In other words, a picture that is worth more than a thousand words.

How to start with it?

I would suggest following the next steps:

  • Draw a scheme of what you want to tell to the audience in your notebook with a pencil. The core idea is that you sketch the main idea of the paper.
  • Write down the text of your graphical abstract. What do you want to say? Be brief and choose your words wisely up to 500 words (not more!).
  • Design your scheme using a graphical tablet or a specific software (Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, PowerPoint, Canva…).
  • Share your designs to get feedback from somebody else. This will help you to get a second opinion of your creations and consider whether the design is suitable to explain the take-home message of your paper.

Do graphical abstracts help to get the main idea of the paper?

A paper by Bredbenner & Simon (2019) addressed this gap by creating a survey. Two papers from Nature on similar research topics were chosen, and different kinds of research summaries were created for each one. Questions to measure comprehension of the research, as well as self-evaluation of enjoyment of the summary, perceived understanding after viewing the summary, and the desire for more updates of that summary type was asked to determine the relative merits of each of the summaries. Their results showed that original abstracts and graphical abstracts are not as successful as video abstracts and plain language summaries at producing comprehension, a feeling of understanding, and enjoyment.


Feature image from Pexels – C0 license.

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