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Controversial Opinion! Text in Graphical Abstracts

Occasionally, I have a controversial opinion about research communication.* This week it is:

The best graphical abstracts have orienting text.

OoOoOoOo! Provocative, right?**

Let’s break down this assertion.

What’s a graphical abstract?

A graphical abstract is an illustrated summary of a scientific journal article. According to Andrew Ibrahim, the first graphical abstract appeared on social media in 2016. In this cool little study, Ibrahim and colleagues found that tweeting a graphical abstract led to way more impressions, retweets, and article visits than simply tweeting an article’s title.

As a social scientist, I don’t really see graphical abstracts in the articles I read. The examples I’ve seen tend to be from biology, chemistry, and medicine. You can check out some of my favorite graphical abstracts here.

What’s orienting text?

This isn’t any sort of official term…it’s just my term for text that answers the question, “OK, what am I looking at here?” Think titles, captions, and labels.

Why do you need text? Isn’t a picture worth a thousand words?

I am a HUGE fan of visuals in communication. But, there are very few visuals that can stand on their own.*** Even paintings and sculptures in museums typically have at least a placard with the piece’s title, creator, and date, to help give context for the work.

And I would argue that, when comprehension is the goal, words are even more important.

Art is about expression for the creator and subjective experience for the audience; does it really matter if everyone comes away with the same understanding? Ambiguity can even be interesting! (Wait, is that Keanu?)

Science raises the stakes on accurate understanding. Does this chemical compound cause or prevent cancer? Should I kill this pretty bug or build it a nesting box? How many chest compressions should I do, and how fast? To be just a little dramatic…having an accurate understanding of scientific literature can mean the difference between life or death, feast or famine.

Here are some examples of “exemplary,” text-light graphical abstracts that I don’t really understand:

https://www.jci.org/kiosks/publish/graphical

https://www.cell.com/pb/assets/raw/shared/figureguidelines/GA_guide.pdf

https://journalallergy.com/Graphical-Abstracts

https://www.jacionline.org/graphical-abstracts

Now here come the objections to my lack of understanding:

“But you’re not a biologist or physician; you’re not meant to understand these.”

Well, that’s kind of elitist. Shouldn’t science be accessible to all?

“But you need to read the whole article to understand the graphical abstract.”

If I can’t make head or tail of the abstract (graphical or written), am I really going to read the full article, or am I going to bypass it for a source that I can understand?

Argh!! What do you want from us?!

So glad you asked! Here’s my wish list for graphical abstract text:

1) A really clear statement of your research question or purpose. What did your study set out to do? What can I expect this abstract to show me?

2) Abbreviations written out, in full, at their first use. My most common complaint about graphical abstracts is that the only text is alphabet soup. For a non-expert audience, mystery abbreviations are about as helpful as having no text at all.

3) Labels for any elements that aren’t self-explanatory to a general audience. Most people are going to understand drawings of a mouse, a cloud with rain, and basic human body parts…no words needed. But if you’ve drawn a blob, most of us don’t know whether it’s a cell or a kidney or a bit of our lunch that splattered onto the screen.

4) A statement of your main finding or conclusion. I think this is the single most important element to include in a graphical abstract. Don’t worry about conveying all of the secondary findings and caveats; that’s what the full article is for. Just state the simplest accurate conclusion that you can.

Are you interested in creating an effective graphical abstract to meet journal requirements or to boost your social media click-throughs? Data Soapbox can help! Contact us here.

*Or about pineapple on pizza. That opinion prompted some spirited debate on social media.

**Disclaimer: This is only going to be provocative to a very small segment of the nerdiverse.

***When I think of visuals that can stand on their own, I think about the icons on airport signage. But even those benefit from some verbiage these days.

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