Create Graphical Abstracts to Reach New Audiences

Categories: Blogs, Comics, Creative Methods, Creativity, Dissemination, Focus Series, Journals, Visuals


A MethodSpace focus for May is on ways to use visuals to represent key ideas, themes in the data, and results of the study, in qualitative, quantitative, and mixed methods research and evaluation.  It is common for researchers to create data visualizations to present findings. In this series we are taking a further step to look at visual practices at all stages of the research process, and in dissemination of findings.

Creative methods for research dissemination are expanding.

We want readers to find and learn from our research publications. With electronic delivery of scholarly journals and the increasing presence of academic blogs, our options for using visuals have expanded beyond black-and-white charts and images. Embedding links to photographs, video, or animations is one option for enlivening academic articles. Or, you can create visual or graphic abstracts to promote academic writings.

Animate Your Science  is dedicated to working with researchers to improve their communications, and better reach your readers both within and across disciplines, in and out of academia. Dr. Tullio Rossi agreed to share posts with MethodSpace readers, and in the coming week I will also be posting a 1-1 interview.

Graphical Abstracts: How to Master the Latest Trend in Publishing
by Dr. Tullio Rossi


Most of us know this story by now.

We spend months writing and revising our manuscript to perfection. We feel proud of our work, and we’re certain our target journal will roll out the red carpet and embrace it with open arms.

Alas, something unexpected happens. . .

We hit a massive roadblock at the tail-end of the manuscript submission process, simply because we don’t have a “graphical abstract.”

“A graphical what?!” we exclaim, throwing our arms in the air. “What on earth IS this thing preventing us from submitting our amazing manuscript? Graphical abstract sounds like a fancy way of saying ‘giant waste of time!’”​

It’s OK. Breathe. . . you’re about to learn exactly how important this “waste of time” really is, and how to nail it right the first time.

It’s true… graphical abstracts have a critical place and a purpose in the publishing process. And it’s true that more and more journals are requiring them for a reason.

In this post, Dr. Tullio Rossi, Science Communicator and Founder of Animate Your Science, explains the purpose of graphical abstracts, what they should look like, and how you can easily create one to stay competitive with your research.

What on earth is a graphical abstract?

Let’s start by clarifying what a graphical abstract (GA) is NOT.

Imagine this. . . it’s late at night, you’ve spent hours reformatting your manuscript to fit the guidelines of your target journal, and you want nothing more than to hit that SUBMIT button, go to bed, and pray that your manuscript is accepted.

Then at the last minute, something really (really!) frustrating happens. Your target journal requires a “graphical abstract” to be submitted along with your paper, and you can’t move forward without one! What do you do?

You have three choices:

1) Scream and damn the day you decided to become an academic.

2) Design a graphical abstract from scratch (remember, it’s half-past midnight already).


3) Grab the prettiest figure from your paper and pretend it’s a graphical abstract.

Look, chances are you’re not a graphic designer, and creating a masterpiece with PowerPoint is out of the question. So I’m certain you’d choose option 1 or option 3. . . and then pay a VERY steep price for it.

The demands on scientists are extremely high, but let’s get one thing straight: a graphical abstract should not be a copy of the best figure in your paper. NEVER!

What’s the Purpose of a Graphical Abstract?

Now that we’ve clarified what a GA should not be, let’s nail down its purpose.

A graphical abstract is used to visually and concisely summarise your manuscript and its main message. How it works depends on who is reading.

  • If your peers are reading: A GA becomes a promotional tool that positions your paper to stand out on social media and elsewhere. As the name suggests, a GA has the same purpose as a traditional abstract. But with 7,000 peer-reviewed articles being published daily, nobody has the time to read a 250 word abstract. Much like a movie poster, a GA grabs attention and drives traffic to your paper. The more ‘buzz’ your paper gets, the more citations it’ll attract down the line.
  • If a non-academic is reading: They don’t speak the scientific jargon, and the blocks of text and the boring black-and-white figures just don’t do it for them. (Can you blame them?) With a well-designed GA, these people can finally become acquainted with, understand and appreciate, your research. A GA extends the reach of your research beyond your peers. That said, not all GA’s are effective for the general public. For instance, if you don’t provide context and leave out the jargon and p-values, it’ll be incomprehensible to the lay person.

Does it really work?

Graphical abstracts have been shown to improve the reach of new scientific publications.

One study used Twitter to quantify the effect of including a graphical abstract in the promotion of new publications. The researchers compared Twitter posts with and without GAs over one year, using each post as its own control. They found that the reach of posts with GAs we dramatically greater than those without. Tweets with GAs received a 7.7-fold increase in Twitter impressions, a 8.4-fold increase in retweets, and a 2.7-fold increase in article visits.

What does a graphical abstract look like?

When it comes to GA’s, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter template. Scientists and artists from around the world have explored a variety of approaches and styles. Which works best depends on who you want to reach — your audience.

The first question you should ask yourself is, who do I want to reach with this GA? Am I just interested in reaching my small community of peers interested in my obscure science or am I interested in going beyond? Do I want the average Joe and Jane on the street to be able to understand this GA? This is a critical question that will determine the content and look of your graphical abstract.

Expert audiences

There is lots of research out there that is hyper-technical and of interest to a limited number of experts only, if that’s your case, great! You know who you are talking to: experts.

If you feel that this is your case, I have a surprise for you. You have total freedom in the style of graphical abstract you can use. Because your audience has an expert level of understanding of the subject you have the freedom to go technical or not. You can decide to show them complex diagrams and p-values or hook them in with a funny comic with a highly nerdy joke that maybe 8 people in the world will understand. It is up to you.

Hold on…Before you happily dump p-values and absurd jargon on your GA I want to remind you of something. You might be missing out on something important – the opportunity of making your research understandable to another scientist from a different discipline. Let’s say you just published a paper about a new algorithm that can automate satellite image analysis. If you make your GA understandable by your satellite buddies only, you’ll miss out on great opportunities. There might be geologists and ecologists out there who would love to use your algorithm, if only they knew it existed! You see, by lowering the technical bar in your GA you will be able to extend the reach and potential impact of your paper. Imagine how many more citations your paper could get!

Non-expert audiences

Open Access publishing is a super trendy topic. The idea or removing paywalls is great. However, I am gonna ask you, is this really enough to make science truly“open”.The paywall is one barrier but not the only one. The language barrier is still standing…I argue that graphical and video abstracts could be very useful tools to finally make research papers more accessible and therefore science – truly open. How? It is all about where we set the entry bar.

Here are some key tips to make sure that a GA is understandable to everyone

  • Context: you need to provide some context because otherwise a non-expert won’t be able to appreciate the relevance of your research
  • No jargon: Some people call it Jargon Monoxide because it asphyxiates audiences. It is true, not being able to understand a few words will cause the reader to switch of and think that this is just not for them.
  • So what? The reason why your research is relevant might be obvious to your peers but it is definitely not obvious to Joe and Jane. Tell them in plain English why this matters to their lives.

Styles of Graphical Abstracts

Let’s now talk about the fun stuff! Style!

Although there are no concrete rules about what a GA should look like, there are a few styles out there, and each one fits a certain audience – sitting somewhere on the Experts-Public spectrum.

Let’s have a look at a few examples of some different styles.

Style 1: The Classic Diagram

This is a more traditional style of GA that’s been around for a while. Using GAs like this wasn’t uncommon in the chemistry field a few decades ago, given that chemistry is such a visual topic.

You’d notice that there is no background context and it’s full of technical jargon. If the target audience is other experts then great, they’ll get it. But this is not suitable for any other kind of audience.

Style 2: The p-value aficionado

This is called a ‘Visual Abstract’. It’s very popular in the medical field, and usually consists of vertical or horizontal panels. It’s a little more accessible than the previous style, with some nice related icons and some text to guide the reader. But, it’s still geared towards other scientists. ​

Style 3: The Infographic​

This is an infographic style, and is probably the most versatile. In this example, it starts with a sentence that provides some background context, and the images are clear and interesting. So this is more accessible for the general public. However, its content is still clearly focussed on being informative about the science, and provides a good middle ground on our Expert-Public spectrum.​

Style 4: The Comic Strip​

The last style is a comic style and is clearly aimed at the general public. It’s visually appealing with some custom graphics, and it uses humour to convey the key scientific message: opening up the target audience to engage with everyone. ​

Now you know why graphical abstracts are important and what they should look like. We hope you enjoyed the read. There’s more…

Access free ebook

If you are ready to ​learn HOW to make your own graphical abstract, click HERE for access to a free ebook from Animate Your Science. You will find a step-by-step guide to making a stunning graphical abstract.

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