Let’s talk “Graphical Abstracts”

If you’re a scientist, and have had something published recently, chances are you’ve come across this option when uploading your final reviewed, edited and approved copy of your manuscript:

uplaoding graphical abstract to journal websiteFor many of us, reaching this point in the submission of your paper and then realising that you don’t have a graphical abstract ready is just a pain you don’t need. By the end we often don’t have the time or energy left to deal creatively with thinking up yet another way to explain our research.

But hear me out. I want to help you understand the benefit of a good graphical abstract, why you should consider putting the extra effort in to create one, and a few tips on how to go about it.

First step – what exactly IS a “graphical abstract”?

According to Elsevier, a graphical abstract is a, “single, concise, pictorial and visual summary of the main findings of the article“… now before you fall asleep, they go on to explain that a graphical abstract, “should allow readers to quickly gain an understanding of the main take-home message of the paper“.

I want to take this definition a little further and add some “movement” to it. What about, “Graphical abstracts are a concise, colourful and engaging visual explanation of the take-home message of the paper”. At least then we can get a bit more excited about them!

What is the benefit of a good graphical abstract?

You have probably read before about the value of disseminating your research or scientific paper into a few different ways to help target different audiences. A colourful and visual explanation of your work can help attract interest from people who might not normally understand or care. Think less about targeting other scientists and more about targeting everyday people.

A good graphical abstract can stand alone as an engaging explanation or it can be paired with other written explanations – blog posts, newspaper articles, updates on your university website, as the star figure on your conference poster etc.

When it comes to social media, a graphical abstract looks way more interesting and is likely to encourage people to “click” more than a simple web-link on different platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, Reddit or Mendeley. For example below, the first Twitter post (no image – not so fun), compared with the second Twitter post (way cooler! & colourful!)


And one final benefit is that your family might finally understand what your research is all about. I showed a couple of my graphical abstracts to some of my family and they went, “Oh THAT’s what you’re working on!”.

How to CREATE a graphical abstract

If you have a little bit of time and creativity and are keen to give creating your own graphical abstract a go – then here are some basic tips.

Tip 1: You don’t need fancy design software. If you already have fancy software and know how to use it, that’s awesome. But if you don’t – don’t worry. I personally use “PowerPoint” to create mine, but you can also try using Word, Publisher or any of your built-in basic drawing software. If you can create different shapes, pick your own colours and add text – you’re golden.

Tip 2: Decide on the simple underlying “story” of your paper. This usually takes me a few goes to get right down to the most important thing to communicate. Go wild – scribble out your ideas on real paper. That way you can scrunch or rip it up satisfyingly when you want to try another way. If stuck try starting with the traditional opening story line, “Once upon a time, in a lab / field / office far away…”

Think of 4 or 5 main points – one sentence each. You’re telling a super short story.
This means simple language (no jargon and no acronyms).

Point 1 = The “big picture” where does your research fit in the world?
Point 2 = What is the question, issue, challenge or problem to overcome?
Point 3 = Your key results or findings. (short & simple)
Point 4 = What do these results or findings mean? What is the impact? How will it help or change things?

Tip 3: Pick only a few (2 or 3 or 4) colours and stick with them. You don’t want to overload on the colours – no rainbow spectrum (unless you’re studying light or lasers or something cool like that). Think either “complementary” colours – colours that work well together. Or you could try picking contrasting colours – colours that really stand out against one another. It’s also worth considering different text colours and fonts.

Examples of colour combinations

Tip 4: Keep your layout simple – think almost comic book style. Try some basic layout shapes like these below, or layer different shapes and then crop to your outline.

Examples of simple layouts

Tip 5: Add visuals which help support your “story”. Use drawing / cartoon style images where possible. If you can draw some of the figures yourself that’s great! Maybe you have a touch-screen laptop or app and can draw them right onto the screen. Or you could even draw them on paper and take a photo. Then email the photo or upload it onto your computer and use the “Remove background” or “Set transparent colour” function in Microsoft Word to get rid of the background.

You can also try using this cool free online software “Autodraw”. You scribble the shape or picture you want and the software uses machine learning to translate your scribble into a proper shape or line image. You can layer shapes and images to make whatever you like and then download the result.

Tip 6: Don’t forget to add the appropriate licensing to your graphical abstract. Follow this link to learn more about the different symbols for “creative commons” etc. I use these symbols on my own graphical abstracts:

Creative commons licensing symbols

This was my first graphical abstract. I wanted a simple way to convey some of the complexity of measuring water use in urban food gardens and the contribution my work made to the field.

Graphical abstract

I used 3 main colours with the darker colour on the bottom to help add perspective. I used orange as a contrast colour. And I split the middle panel as I wanted to show the separate diversity of “watering gardens” on one side and “producing food” on the other side.

But what if I don’t have the time / motivation / creativity to make my own graphical abstract?

Well that’s okay too because there are a few people out there who are more than happy to help create a graphical abstract for you. Their styles, processes and prices vary a little but here are a couple of options:

I also highly recommend looking up these brilliant science communicators and graphical artists on Twitter, they too may be able to help you out:

And there you go – I hope this has inspired you to give making your own graphical abstract a go. It is very satisfying to view your published article on the Journal website and have your colourful graphical abstract appear front and centre.

Good luck!


Keeping Data Personal: Big scopes, little people

Every now and again I wonder about whether big data can still be personal. This generally occurs after I get a pop-up on my computer or an up-date on my phone which asks if they can track and use my background data.

But it does get me thinking – I hear a lot about us being in the era of “big data”, with mass data collection all around. Some of this is used to categorise us according to our likes and shopping desires. Some is used to actually better the systems and interfaces we work with.

But I know from my own data collection experiences how easy it is (once everyone’s answers are turned into numbers and categories), to lose sight of what those answers really mean in context to each person, and in turn what this means for your research.

But there are people out there making huge efforts to keep our interfaces, data collection and communications not just individual but personal too. I only recently watched a TED Talk by Aaron Koblin from 2011 called, “Visualizing ourselves… with crowd-sourced data”.Read More »

A WISE Event: All the Career Possibilities

One brisk Monday night, a large roomful of women gathered in the silver mirrored SAHMRI building to hear from three amazing women / successful scientists who have trodden a wide range of career pathways and ended up in jobs very different to those they first imagined.

The first speaker was Dr Kate Gridley, now a Research Coordinator in the Division of Health Sciences at the University of South Australia. Check out Dr Gridley’s homepage at – http://people.unisa.edu.au/Kate.Gridley

Dr Gridley started with showing us the difference between her assumed career path once she had finished studying, to the path she actually took – winding in and out of different positions.

The jump from hands on PhD research, to a more administerial position required a serious effort in translation. Mostly, the translation of all the skills Dr Gridley had honed during her PhD to be shown as applicable and valuable skills for non-research work. She spoke of learning to, “sell myself as an asset…” and, “remaining open to any options”.

Dr Gridley finished with asking us, the audience, to think more about our future career and to practice selling ourselves and our skills as transferable to any position.

Read More »

Book breakdown – “Don’t be such a scientist” Part 2

Here we cover the next part of Dr Randy Olson’s insightful book:

“Don’t be so literal minded”

Olson builds on the first part of his book by describing some of the struggles scientists can have when trying to communicate to those outside of academia. Logical, literal and data based arguments (the head perspective) can be up against an unfair fight when emotional or instinctive arguments (the heart or gut perspectives) are used against them. And who else, besides the scientists themselves, pride themselves on using purely logical, literal and data-based arguments? No-one. Not governments or politicians. And not businesses or industries.

In this loud, information overloaded world – if you as a scientist are attempting to engage anyone outside of academia in the work you have done, it’s not always enough that your work is rigorous or has real-world implications. You will have to promote your work a little… or a lot, to be heard.

Read More »

Why online presence is important for all scientists: The League of Remarkable Women in Science, interview Dr Rachael Dunlop

What a brilliant interview with Dr Rachael Dunlop – I love the idea of starting by learning to communicate effectively and THEN getting into science. Possible a harder way of doing things but she has made it a success.

Read More »

It all had to start somewhere.

At the end of Year 12, I decided I wanted to go to university and do a double degree in Environmental Science, and Fine Arts. Except… that this didn’t exist.

I was told that it had never been done before, and that there were no processes in place to facilitate such a combination.

But I was convinced that there was such potential, and so many connections and similarities between science and art. Art is expression, emotion and all about telling a story (even if you don’t know what the story is). Science is observation, exploration and logically figuring things out.

Both are attempts to gain understanding.

But I was younger, and new to how universities worked and I let the idea go. I began the four years of environmental science it took to get me here at the beginning of a PhD. With what I now know – I wish I could go back and fight for that double degree. I would have said, “This is where the future is heading and I want in. I know we can figure it out somehow.” But I didn’t and that’s okay too. Because between my PhD, this new blog, and my artwork – I’m getting there anyway.