Utilizing tables, figures, charts and graphs to enhance the readability of a research paperCA Divecha1, MS Tullu2, S Karande2
1 Department of Pediatrics, College of Medicine and Health Sciences, National University of Science and Technology, Sohar, Sultanate of Oman
2 Department of Pediatrics, Seth G.S. Medical College and KEM Hospital, Mumbai, Maharashtra, India
Correspondence Address: Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None DOI: 10.4103/jpgm.jpgm_387_23
Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None
Every author aims to reach the maximum target audience through his/her research publication/s. Our previous editorials have touched upon the process of writing a quality research paper and its successful publication in an appropriate journal., Journal-specific ”Instructions for Authors” generally have defined limits to the text and non-textual content for the benefit of space and presentation. Though the aim of a paper is to get its research point across through methodology, results, and discussion, readers often read the summary of data and analysis (only). Thus, the tables, figures, charts, and graphs are time and space-effective tools that not only help to understand the research presented in a simple manner but also engage and sustain the reader's interest.
Reading text matter can often get monotonous – for the readers as well as the editors and reviewers. Using Tables/Figures/Charts or Graphs effectively provides a break from textual content monotony as well as provides an opportunity to process and connect information between text and images, promoting deeper learning. It is suggested that one non-textual element should be used for every 1000 words in a manuscript, which generally amounts to two for every three print pages. The use of tables/figures/charts/graphs not only reduces the word count but also complements the text effectively. Although the text focuses on explaining findings, outlining trends, and providing contextual information, non-textual content allows readers to understand characteristics, distribution, and relationships between data, and visualize statistics/abstract concepts in a powerful manner. High-quality tables and figures also increase the likelihood of a manuscript being accepted for publication. Note that the figures/artwork needs to be uploaded as separate files for most of the journals.
The CONSORT statement (www.equator-ntework.org) provides guidelines on how to report outcome-specific information in a published clinical trial report; however there are no definite recommendations on how to present non-textual elements, and this varies from one journal to another. Authors tend to prepare them based on their own understanding, often without much thought, and repeat the information presented in the main text. Moreover, while some journals have dedicated editors and resources to redraw or edit figures/tables, others simply publish whatever the authors submit. Thus, to improve the readability of the paper, it is primarily the author's responsibility to submit clear and useful tables, figures, charts, and graphs.
The heart of any research lies in its data, and most readers only get a glimpse of the data via the results. The closest one can get to raw statistics is through data presented in tables, figures, graphs, and supplementary material. Tables, figures, and graphs also help to classify and interpret data, highlight key findings, and present maximum data in a concise space. The author should make a deliberate decision on the presentation of his data early in the writing process. Using a sentence as text is more efficient while presenting up to half a dozen numbers in data or if the information can be summarized in three or lesser sentences. Figures give an overall picture of concept (but without exact numerical data), while tables present exact values (but are less engaging and less interesting). The final choice of the presentation depends on the type of data, statistical analysis, and relevant message to be delivered.
The general structure followed by most non-textual elements is caption/legend/title, content, and footnotes. All data should be verified thoroughly for errors (especially outliers or unexpected spikes) and data sources should be cited in the footnotes/references. The presentation should be simple and clear enough for the reader to understand without any assumptions. Each exhibit should be labeled clearly with a title and numbers (usually Arabic numerals) that are separate, unique, and consecutive based on their appearance in the text. The title should be self-explanatory and explain the information presented (what, where, and when) briefly. Footnotes should refer to restrictions, assumptions, abbreviations, explanatory notes, and unusual annotations. The formatting should be consistent throughout (across all tables/graphs) for easy comparison. Design the figures, tables, and graphs to fit in one page on a scale that will be readable in print. Always use the insert -> (arrow) page break function to ensure that each new Table/Figure/Graph is seen in the document on a new page. Data from the figures and tables should not be repeated in the text. Although tables/figures are often submitted separately or at the end of manuscript based on journal instructions, they should be referred to in the text at appropriate points by location statements i.e. [Figure 1] and [Figure 2] or [Table 1] and [Table 2]. One should be careful during editing and proofreading, as contents and columns may get misplaced. Ensure to follow the journal instructions regarding numbers and formats and glance through published examples in targeted journal. For additional data/tables/figures/graphs that do not fit into the journal's instructions or are still necessary to be displayed outside the word/Table limit, online appendages (or supplementary files) can be created. Do ask for feedback from experienced colleague/s (but not co-author) for the exhibit before final submissions.
Material from government publications/public domain may be used without seeking permission; however, permission is required for all fully borrowed, adapted, or modified tables/figures/graphs not in the public domain, usually from the publishers, with appropriate credit notes in footnotes (as stated for the Journal of Postgraduate Medicine – JPGM)., All data sources should be identified for tables/figures created using information from other studies. Authors should seek permissions from publishers early in their writing, as their research cannot be published until all written permissions have been submitted and approved. It is good practice to maintain a copy of such permissions with the corresponding author in case a dispute arises later on.
Tables are meant to give a systematic overview of the results and provide a richer understanding/comprehension of study participant characteristics and principal research findings. Since tables deal with larger groups of data, they are suitable when all data requires equal attention and readers can selectively scan the data of interest. Tables can present precise numerical values and information with different units' side-by-side but may not analyze data trends. However, due to the sheer amount of data, interpretation may take longer.
Generally, the first table summarizes key characteristics of the study population allowing readers to assess the generalizability of the findings. Subsequent tables present details of associations/comparisons between variables, often crude findings followed by models adjusted for confounding factors. Other tables include tables of lists, tables of inclusion/exclusion criteria for review, and summary of characteristics/results of study (systematic reviews) and characteristics of participants in narrative format (qualitative studies).
A good table draws attention to the data and not the table itself; the reader should be able to express an opinion about results just by looking at it. It should neither be too long nor wide; designing more rows than columns makes it easier to scan in portrait orientation., JPGM guidelines permit a maximum of 10 columns and 25 rows in a table. They are generally created from word documents as insert table and constructed before writing the content in text. Most tables consist of five basic components: title, rows, columns, data fields, and footnotes. The title/legend should be concise but sufficiently informative. The first column generally lists the independent variables in rows while subsequent columns present the dependent data. Column and row headings should include group sizes and measurement units (preferably an international system of units). Stubs (row headings) on the left side of a table describe row contents and should also list numerical definitions for the data i.e. the median ± SD (normal distribution), median with IQR (non-normally distributed data), or percentages (dichotomous data), Use fewest decimal points necessary for accurate reporting of data. Columns should present statistical analysis and significance (P values) to highlight key findings. Use well-labeled columns with the same format throughout (mean or percentiles).
Each cell (data field) should contain only one numerical value and never be blank [use dash (-), ellipsis (…) or designate as “no data”]. Abbreviations should be limited; use abbreviations like “NA” very cautiously as it may be misinterpreted as not applicable/not available/not analyzed. Combine tables when single variable is cross-tabulated or divide tables with too much of data.
Footnotes should be brief, define abbreviations, statistical results (P values and level of significance) and explain restrictions/discrepancies in the data. Footnotes should be ordered starting with the title of the table and working downwards from left to right. Symbols applying to the entire table should be in the title and those applying to the entire row/column should be after the row/column heading. Most journals prefer superscripted letters instead of numbers. Symbols recommended by JPGM for footnotes (in order) are: *, †, ‡, §, |, ¶, **, ††, ‡‡.
Alignment and formatting: All text should be aligned to the left and numbers to the right. Data fields with decimal points, hyphens/slashes, plus/minus symbols, or parentheses are aligned to these elements. For stubs continuing onto a second line, the corresponding data field should be aligned to the top line of the stub. Tables can be made more meaningful, by converting data to ratios/percentages and sorting data as per the significance of variables, generally from left to right and top to bottom. Data included in tables should conform with those in the main text, and percentages in rows and columns should sum up accurately.
Most journals have specific instructions for gridlines – only the top and bottom horizontal lines are used, with no vertical lines as columns are inherently aligned. If tables are used from other publications, copyright permission should be obtained to reproduce them, and they should be appropriately referenced in the legend. There may be limitations as to the number of tables allowed depending on the Journal instructions and the type of article. Some Do's and Don'ts while creating tables are summarized in Table 1.,,,, Also, a representative table already published in the JPGM earlier has been reproduced herewith for better understanding [Figure 1].
Figures are powerful communication tools that display patterns that are not visualized in the text or the tables. They can achieve a high educational impact by sustaining readers' interest and helping them understand trends, patterns, relationships among concepts and sequence of events. Like tables, figures should be complete and self-explanatory. They should be designed thoughtfully, be relevant and be of good quality. There may be limitations as to the number of figures allowed depending on the Journal instructions and type of the article. Figures can be statistical (graphs- as explained later) and non-statistical (clinical images, photographs, diagrams, illustrations and textual figures). Non-statistical figures present visual information without data. Clinical images and photographs [ultrasonograms, X-rays, computed tomography (CT) scans, magnetic resonance (MR) scans, images of patients, intraoperative photographs, tissue samples or microscopy findings] provide convincing and substantial information through illustrative examples from specific individuals and engage audiences, especially clinical professionals. Illustrations help to explain structures, mechanisms, and relationships. Diagrams like “flowcharts”, “algorithms”, “pedigree charts”, and “maps” display complex relationships while “textual figures” describe steps of a procedure or summarize guidelines.
Structure: Figure legends (maximum of 40 words excluding credits) should be double-spaced and identified by consecutive Arabic numerals with the corresponding citation in the text. They reflect the data within, and consist of a brief title, experimental/statistical details, definitions of symbols/line or bar patterns and abbreviations/annotations. Labels, numbers, and symbols should be clear, consistent, of uniform size and large enough to be legible after fitting figures to publication size. Symbols, arrows, numbers, or letters used to identify parts of illustrations should be clearly identified, properly sized, placed, and explained in the legend. In case of photomicrographs, contrast the symbols/letters or arrows with background, and describe the internal scale (magnification) and method of staining. If the figure has several parts (”collage”), they should be presented in order from left to right and top to bottom; this should be similarly followed for their description in the legend with labeling done as a, b, c, d, etc.
Photos should have a minimum resolution of 300 dpi before digital manipulation, the acceptable formats for pictures/photos and figures in various journals being pdf, doc, ppt, jpg, gif, and tiff. Publication of color images may be chargeable which should be checked beforehand. Often the print version of journal may present black and white images, with color images used in the online version.
Line diagrams: Black and white art with no shading often illustrates content better than a photograph, especially in the case of body anatomy or surgical techniques. Their line weight should be consistent and not less than 0.25 pt. If scanned, they should be submitted as a tiff/jpeg image of at least 600 dpi and a width of 15 cm/6 inches. Creating line diagrams may involve expensive professional help with issues of exclusive rights. Simple drawings can be scanned in a conventional office scanner at a minimum resolution of 600 dpi. Drawings in shades of grey require a resolution of 1200 dpi or more, usually unavailable in regular office scanners.
X-rays, which are photographic images, often lack good contrast, a problem magnified if the image must be enlarged. The quality of radiographs can be improved using Adobe Photoshop. Figure captions in radiology should be utilized correctly and mention the modality, imaging plane and relevant technical information for images e.g. projection name on an x-ray, plane of a cross-sectional image, window setting of a CT section, and sequence name of an MR image.
One may need to crop images to focus on the point of interest and maintain patient anonymity. Editing is usually done in tiff file format in software designed for image editing. Adjustments in brightness/contrast/color balance may help if raw image is not clear; however, it should not alter the meaning. Colors should be easy to see (avoid yellow) and backgrounds should preferably be white. The tint should be no lower than 15%. However, all digital modifications or enhancements of photographic images should be documented, step by step and the original raw files of unedited photographs/images should be available as supplementary files.
Minimum resolution and design: Figures should be of high quality and resolution such that when final images are zoomed to 1600%, they should not blur or pixelate. In case of reprints, care should be taken about picture quality. JPGM requires a minimum resolution of 300 dpi or 1800 × 1600 pixels in TIFF format for digital images. Uploaded images should be within 4 MB in size and JPEG format. The JPGM also reserves the right to crop, rotate, reduce, or enlarge the photographs to an acceptable size. One can use tools while creating figures and exporting data in another software; a few examples of open-source are Matplotlib (python plotting library), R, Inkscape, TikZ, PGF, GIMP, ImageMagick, D3 (Data-Driven-Documents), Cytoscape and Circos.
Anonymity and Copyright: In the case of images, all unessential patient information or identifiers should be removed (masking or blurring only the eyes is no longer considered sufficient). It is the author's responsibility to obtain written permission from the patient to use the photograph for educational purposes (whether the subject is identifiable or not) and archive it properly. For images or descriptions that identify the patient, a statement about obtaining informed patient consent should be specified in the manuscript. For figures published elsewhere, the original source should be acknowledged (via credit line in the figure legend) and the author should submit permission from copyright holder (usually the publisher) to reproduce the material before his/her manuscript is accepted., Representative figure/s already published in the JPGM earlier have been reproduced herewith as an example [Figure 2].
Graphs allow the reader to visualize and compare data by highlighting patterns and relationships such as changes over time, frequency distribution, correlation, and relative share. One should be precise with data values and presentation in graphs to avoid misinterpretation. Graphs can be created from data using the same software used for statistical analysis or by special programs. Depending on the results, data can be depicted in several different formats, such as line graphs, bar charts, data plots, maps, and pie charts.
What to use and when: The graphical format (bar graph, line graph, scatter lot, dot plot) can be decided based on the type of relationship to be shown. For example, line graphs demonstrate trends, bar graphs show magnitudes and pie charts show proportions., The preferred graph also depends on the representative value of data – absolute value/fraction/average/median. Graphs should accurately present findings, scale should start at zero and the axes should not be altered to make data meaningful. Pie charts and 3D graphs are generally not recommended. Table 2 summarizes different graphical formats with their brief description and uses.,,,,,
How to draw/construct: Most statistical programs create graphs with statistical computations. Special programs such as Prism and Sigmaplot can also be used. Different formats can be visualized in the statistical program, and the one that best depicts the data can be chosen. Actual numbers from which graphs are drawn should be provided. Components of graphs include axes, labels, scales, tick/reference marks, symbols, and legends. Independent variables are plotted on the horizontal axis while dependent variables on vertical axis. Axis labels should be short, clear and indicate measurement variable/result, units, and number of group subjects (if any). The axis scale should be proportional to data range so that visual data is not exaggerated/missed and minimum space is wasted. Length of axes should be visually balanced (ratio of X to Y axis should be 1.0 to 1.3). Provide explanations if the axis starts from non-zero values, is non-linear (logarithmic/exponential/rate) or scales before and after a break are different., Symbols/lines/curves inside the two axes should be the most prominent features, wording in axes labels next prominent and axes and tick mark (outside of axes) least prominent. Numbers and marks should be large enough to be legible even when compressed for print. Symbols should be uniform and effectively used to designate important strata in figures. All graphs should be consistent in style and formatting. Footnotes should indicate P values (with appropriate statistical test) and discrepancies in data/items.
A clear and concise legend (inside/outside) should describe the variables in the graph. It should also include values of lines, symbols and diagrams, abbreviations, acronyms as well as statistical tests, their levels of significance, sampling size, stains used for analysis, and magnification rate., Annotations can highlight specific values/statistically significant differences in graphs.
All unnecessary background lines (such as gridlines) are distracting and should be removed. The background should be the palest possible (preferably white) for the highest contrast and readability. Remove all default pre-styling formats and avoid 3D effects. Data presentation can be intensified by eliminating clutter and refined in a vector graph editing program (without altering the position of marks representing data). It is essential to minimize meaningless noise and maximize meaningful signals.
Algorithms (combination of graph and table) are an excellent aid to demonstrate a decision tree. However, they can be difficult to construct due to decisions based on more than one variable. This presents clinical and technical difficulties in presenting all possible variations in a diagnosis or therapeutic decision.
A representative graph and chart already published in the JPGM earlier has been reproduced herewith as an example [Figure 3] and [Figure 4].
Supplementary materials refer to additional content (tables/graphs/appendices/videos/audios) that are not published in the main article. Scientific publications often come with strict word limits. Additional text or data which lengthens the print version can be accessed via digital supplementary files. Besides overcoming word restrictions, supplementary material provides additional information that is not essential in the main manuscript, but enhances understanding of research. They are available to interested readers to explore or replicate (methods/formulae/statistical models/algorithms/intervention pathways) the study for secondary research or teaching. Thus, they serve as an online companion, complementing the main text. The most common supplementary files are tables and figures. Some instances of their use in various sections are as follows.
In introduction: Table of summary of literature from various studies, detailed description of research topic, illustrations of concepts discussed, and glossaries of terms used.
In methodology: Participant details (sources, inclusion/exclusion lists, demography), instrumentation of constructs and variables, data collection techniques (survey questionnaires, participant forms), and data analysis techniques (coding sheets for content analysis, checklists) mathematical formulae used in calculations, data collection schedule.
In results and discussion: Additional results (often tables and figures), detailed analysis of limitations of the study or possible alternative explanations, programming code.
Other material includes references for supplementary files, translations, errata, audio, and video files.
Examples of video/audio files include echocardiography recordings and ultrasound images. Specific information on the preparation of audio and video clips is available in the author guidelines. Video formats usually used are MPEG-4, QuickTime, or Windows media video. Audio supplements include WAV or MP3 format. Video size should be reduced to <10 MB and clips limited to 15–25 s. The resolution should be optimized by using video frame dimensions of 480 × 360 pixels and 640 × 480 pixels.
However, supplemental material is available only in the online version- limiting immediate access to many readers. Moreover, only readers with a strong interest in the research topic will access the online supplementary material. The information in these files is often very extensive and not integrated with the main text appropriately, thus finding and extracting specific points from a supplement can be tedious.
The utility of supplementary material varies as per the audience – additional tables and figures are more useful to readers, information about study protocol/data collection to peer reviewers, and completed checklists to journal editors. Due to the lack of guidance from journals (to both authors and reviewers) regarding its necessity or accuracy and due to the extensive nature of the files, supplementary material is rarely read/reviewed (though all the supplementary files are to be uploaded for peer-review with the main article files at the time of submission). This increases the likelihood of missing errors in methods/analysis (submitted as supplementary files), thus placing the scientific accuracy and validity of the published research at risk. Moreover, the availability of raw data to third parties via supplementary files raises concerns about security and data permanence. The supplementary files often describe methods crucial to published research but are not included in references, thus many researchers remain uncited/unrecognized. Citations within supplementary material are also not appropriately tracked by citation indices. This can be overcome by direct hyperlinking sections of supplementary materials with the main manuscript. Thus, supplementary data can be an asset if used thoughtfully; however, its indiscriminate use can hinder its actual purpose and be detrimental to the peer review process.
Tables, figures, graphs, and supplementary materials are vital tools which, when skillfully used, make complex data simple and clear to understand, within journal word restrictions. They engage and sustain interest and provide a brief visual summary narrative of study hypothesis- saving time and energy for readers, reviewers, and editors. They should be self-explanatory, complement the text and provide value to the paper. Producing clear, informative non-textual elements increases the chances of papers being published and read. Thus, the author should plan these elements early during the process of data collection/analysis and not as an afterthought. The author should have a good understanding of the types of data presentations and choose the simplest format that delivers his message best. They should be adapted to the journal's instructions to display and summarize essential content, without focusing too much on making it attractive or showcase one's technical expertise. Titles should be clear and simple, data should be consistent with results, and footnotes should be used effectively. Copyrights permissions, whenever necessary, should be obtained in advance and preserved appropriately.
[Figure 1], [Figure 2], [Figure 3], [Figure 4]
[Table 1], [Table 2]