3 ways to create a graphical abstract for your paper

More and more journals are requiring a graphical abstract when you are submitting your paper. But what is a graphical abstract and how can you make one for your study? I invited Dr Gaius Augustus, a multimedia science communicator, to share his expertise about creating an enticing graphical abstract with us. Learn about three types of graphical abstracts that you can create, common pitfalls when making graphical abstracts, what programs to use and whether you should hire an artist to help you.

Your experiments are finished, your figures created, you’ve even written up a nice manuscript to submit to the perfect journal. You take a moment to pull up the formatting guidelines from the journal website. Everything seems to be in place – except for that one nagging requirement: a graphical abstract. In this post, I’ll show you how you can get the most out of your graphical abstract and demonstrate three different types of graphical abstracts you can use.


What is a graphical abstract?

A graphical abstract in its pure form is a visual representation of the abstract of a paper. I typically see graphical abstracts in two places: social media and journal websites. While journals usually have some guidelines on the length and format of abstracts, there are often no strict guidelines for graphical abstracts.

There are several schools of thought on what information one should put in a graphical abstract. Some suggest including everything that is part of the written abstract, such as background information, the problem the study is solving, as well as the results, conclusions and implications of the study, and perhaps even the methods that were used. However, graphical abstracts don’t come up in search engines for the scientific literature, such as PubMed or Google Scholar. So, one cannot expect them to take the place of a written abstract. Instead, I tend to think of a graphical abstract as a visualization that gets across the main idea of your paper.

Instead of including information about experiments you did or results you observed, I believe your graphical abstract should complement your written abstract. It should give readers a quick overview of how the results fit together into a conceptual or empirical framework, and how that framework impacts your scientific field. Ideally, a graphical abstract provides some background on the research question and gaps in the literature. I recommend you to only mention the methodology if it’s crucial to understand the results. It is best to choose one main graphic that is either the most compelling piece of data or a model that integrates the data into one figure.

How do I create a graphical abstract?

There are three types of graphical abstracts that are most effective for communicating research:

  1. Flow diagrams

  2. Visual systems models

  3. Visual representations of the proposed model (such as a cartoon)

Let’s take this abstract as an example:

Luke Skywalker, a young orphan living with his uncle on Tatooine, is recruited into the Resistance by Obi Wan Kenobi, the last living Jedi master who has been in hiding from the evil Empire on the remote planet. Luke is informed that his father was a powerful Jedi and is given his father’s lightsaber. It is unknown whether Luke is a Jedi too and whether he can harness the power of the Force. Here, we show that Luke Skywalker is a Jedi who can harness the power of the Force. Through providing training by Obi Wan and challenging Luke through simulated and real battle experiences, we found that in the absence of visual senses, Luke was able to predict the path of incoming lasers and to accurately target a missile. Our findings support a model that exposure and motivation can activate the latent Jedi in the presence of training and challenges but can be hampered by temptation and anger. Overall, this study provides a theoretical framework for the development and activation of a latent Jedi, potentially impacting the ability of the Resistance to challenge the Empire.

How does this translate into the different forms of graphical abstracts? Here’s an example of a flow diagram corresponding to the above abstract:

 
Flow diagram as graphical abstract

Flow diagram as graphical abstract

 

It uses simple shapes such as squares, arrows, and crosses to describe the process. This graphical abstract is rather text-heavy, but the flow diagram gives a decent indication of the methods used, their results, and the impact of the experimental variable.

The next example is a visual systems model. It is based on the idea of “what makes a Jedi” and divides it into the factors that activate (green, arrows) or inhibit (red, “T’s”) becoming a Jedi. Notice how this graphical abstract doesn’t include the exact experiments performed and instead focuses on the big picture:

´Visual systems model as graphical abstract

´Visual systems model as graphical abstract

On to the visual representations. A cartoon model can bring your particular study into the context of the full model:

 
Cartoon as graphical abstract

Cartoon as graphical abstract

Here we see visual representations of the specific experiments and variables of our study while using the language of a more general model. This also allows you to add personality to your graphical abstract.

So, the flow diagram, visual system model and visual representation are three examples of a graphical abstract. But they are not the only types! Your perfect graphical abstract will be dictated by both your field and your imagination. I want to encourage you to think outside of the box. Find ways to visualize your topic that are clear and concise, and support the written abstract.

Common mistakes when creating graphical abstracts

Before you now get started on your graphical abstract, I want to warn you about the five most common mistakes I see around:

  1. Being too vague. This applies to all parts of your abstract, e.g. what you did, how your results fit into the model, and why your study is impactful

  2. Using images flippantly. Every graphic should have a purpose, and a reader should get a general idea of what your article is about from the graphical abstract

  3. Using too much or not enough color. Color is important as a way of highlighting concepts and flow. It’s useful for organization as well. But don’t overdo it. Make sure you are using color with intention.

  4. Too much text. If your graphical abstract has as much text as your written abstract, it’s probably overcrowded.

  5. Not enough white space. White space is the “breathing room” around any piece of text or image, and it’s incredibly important in order for readers to grasp the content of your graphical abstract quickly. Give everything a bit of space around it and ignore that itch to fill every pixel with something useful.

Common questions about graphical abstracts

There are probably some more things you are wondering about making your own graphical abstract. Here are the answers to a few questions I get all the time:

What program should I use?

You can use any program you want. You can draw with ink/marker and take a picture with your phone. You can use a drawing program such as Adobe Photoshop or the free and open-source tool Krita. You can also use a vector drawing program like Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, or Affinity Designer. The images for this post were made using Google’s drawing tools inside Google Docs. Just remember: Getting a fancy program is not going to make your graphical abstract look better, especially if you haven’t given yourself enough time to gain some skill at it.

What image size and format should I use?

This should be defined by your journal. If they give you too much freedom, ensure that whatever size you choose has a sufficient resolution at print quality (minimum of 300dpi). Make sure the text is legible without having to zoom in extensively. When in thumbnail view, your graphical abstract shouldn’t look too busy. If the journal doesn’t specify, export the image as a TIF or PNG.

Should I hire an artist?

If you’re unsure where to start, you should definitely consider hiring someone to help, like me. There are various artists who can translate your research into a graphical abstract. Just a little tip: Working with someone who has a scientific background may make the process less burdensome.

 

I hope you got a lot out of these tips! Graphical abstracts are a terrific new frontier that I hope will encourage scientists to think of better ways to visually communicate their research. Good luck!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Gaius Augustus on graphical abstracts

Gaius J. Augustus is a multimedia communicator. Trained in fine arts and video production, Gaius switched career tracks to pursue a PhD in science. He now works to communicate science to the world with beautiful infographics, illustrations, and animations. Along the way, he shares what he has learned in hopes that he can improve the public opinion of science by making science more visual and engaging. To get in touch, check out his website or reach out via email: gaius@gaiusjaugustus.com.