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Put your readers on a slippery slope with a graphical abstract
Scientific publishing is a rigid process and has a rigid structure. It is optimised to effectively communicate scientific findings to your peers in a uniform format (title, abstract, introduction, materials and methods, results, discussion, references). It allows your reader to easily find what she is looking for and to skim and skip through the content.
However, every now and then, scientific journals experiment with ‘new’ ways of publishing research. One of these emerging trends is the graphical abstract. A graphical abstract is supposed to be a single and concise visual representation of the presented research. It should be a summary of the main findings of the paper captured in a specially designed figure.
Sigh… Many research scientists see it as extra work and don’t want to invest too much time on it. As a result, most graphical abstracts are an upgraded version of the conclusion slide of the talk that goes along with the publication. I’m not sure if this very helpful for the perceived quality of the publication.
But let’s try to approach it from another angle.
As it often goes with new things, we know relatively fast ‘what’ it is. Every journal that publishes graphical abstracts describes nicely what it is on their website. However, it is much more difficult to answer the more important questions ‘why’ and ‘how’. This information is much vaguer or absent on most instructions to authors. I understand that many of us don’t see the added value and only see the extra work. Isn’t it much more motivating to do the work when we have a good reason and motivation?
If you publish your research paper that cost you endless experiments and months of hard work, I assume that you would like people to read your findings. It is essential in effective science communication and essential for the advancement of science. So here you go, that is your ‘why’.
A graphical abstract is the perfect tool to help you accomplish this goal. It is your ad for your paper, an attention getter, an easy entry point to put your potential readers on a slippery slope to read more. We often hear the same advice for delivering a science presentation, you have to capture your audience’s attention. The same is true for other forms of communication, such as a research paper.
If you start with this motivation and rationale, the next step is to define how you could do that with a graphical abstract. You should focus on design, composition and aesthetics to emphasise the most important findings. People get inspired by beauty and aesthetic compositions are more easy to understand. You should consider the context in which the graphical abstract will be seen. This is mostly online (in contrast to a seminar room where you use the powerpoint slide that I talked about before). You should try to put yourself in the shoes of your potential reader and find out what attracts his attention. A good starting point is to look at yourself, what does attract your attention?
Giving a different focus and purpose to a graphical abstract – opening the door to your research versus making a concise visual representation of your paper – creates an opportunity for you as a publishing author to get more people to read your research. This is what I call effective science communication. It is our duty… for the advancement of science. You’re in?
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