How to Successfully Use Tables and Figures in Your Scientific Paper

Illustrative Descriptions of Your Research Results

When you read a scientific paper published in an academic journal, chances are that the first things you look at are the tables and figures. Tables and figures serve to visualize the research results and offer proof of their conclusions. Figures come in many forms, such as line graphs, bar graphs, and photographs, to name only a few. Since your reader will most likely turn to these visual representations first when reading your research paper, it is important to use them successfully. Here are some suggestions for doing so.

Use the correct style guide 

The first thing you should do is check the style guide for the journal to which you wish to submit the manuscript. Some journal publishers have their guidelines for tables and figures right on their websites; others refer you to a commonly used manual, such as Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 7th edition (APA 7). Be sure you have copies of such manuals available and don’t try to substitute, for example, APA 7 for APA 6. There are subtle differences between editions, so be sure not to throw away your copy of the previous edition when you purchase the new edition—at least not for several years.

Formatting tables and figures

When using a graph as a figure, it is imperative that you label the axes clearly with quantity or number as well as units. For example, labeling an x-axis with “Time” is poor because the reader will not know how the time was measured. It would be preferable to label the axis “Time (s)” or “Time in seconds.” Similarly, labeling a y-axis with “Cancerous cells” is vague, while “Number of cancerous cells” is more specific.

Tables and figures also need to be titled clearly. The title should be descriptive but not too wordy. “Number of cancerous cells as a function of time” is sufficiently clear, although some may find it too technical-sounding. “Number of cancerous cells found over time” may be preferable in this case. On the other hand, you would not want to title your figure “Cancerous cells over time,” as this is rather ambiguous and your reader may ask, “What is it about the cancerous cells that this is telling me?” It is also important to follow the journal’s style for numbering tables and figures (Arabic versus Roman numerals) and place the title and legend in the areas where the journal desires them to be.

Make it visually appealing

When preparing a table, you need to make it readable. A reader will be turned off by a jumble of numbers in rows and columns if nothing has been done to make the table more organized. Bold lines between some or all of the rows can provide clarity, as well as bold font for every other column, for example. If the table is in color, placing every other row or column (but not both) in a light-colored background may also aid readability.

Illustrative descriptions through photographs 

Photographs of experimental results, such as those of Western blots or immunocytochemical assays, are probably the most eye-catching and convincing way to prove your results to your reader; the reader may indeed look at them first when perusing your manuscript. It is very important, then, that they are of professional quality and labeled clearly. For example, if a certain band of protein in a Western blot confirms your findings, that band should be labeled with a clear arrow. Arrows are also useful for pointing out differently colored cells in an immunocytochemical assay. 

Clear legends

A table or figure’s legend is of equal importance as the figure itself, for it serves as a road map to the reader who is navigating the figure or table. If it is too short, the reader will wonder what happened in the experiment; if too long, the reader will be turned off and point their eyes elsewhere. The legend should explain the symbols used in a figure (or to what the arrows are pointing in a photograph) and give any statistical data (note: in most journals, a p-value has an italicized p). Unless the journal specifies, experimental methods should not be put in the legend; place them in the Methods and Materials section of your manuscript.

Tables and figures, when properly used, can be the highlight of your manuscript and the one thing that convinces the reader of your results. Take the time to make them stand out and shine. 

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