Seeing Science: How to Visually Explain Complex Concepts

eExplaining a scientific discovery in a clear and effective way is often difficult. In fact, many researchers struggle to figure out how best to break down the implications of their findings into easily digestible bites for a general audience or even their peers to understand. Scientists have long embraced a text-heavy, jargon-filled approach to scientific communication, but the resulting papers often prove difficult to read even for those familiar with the field. To increase the scope of scientific communication, researchers are increasingly incorporating more accessible and effective methods, such as diagrams and images, to communicate their research findings to their peers and the public.

We remember what we see

Humans are visual creatures who more easily absorb and retain information when it is presented as an image compared to text.1,2 This concept, known as the picture superiority effect, explains the root of the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” and applies to countless styles of communication, including science literacy. When researchers develop graphic messages to complement the text of their paper, they present their main message in two ways, making it easier for anyone to understand, whether they are an expert in the field or not.3 This increases the chances that other researchers will follow up or cite the original work. In a recent study, scientists analyzed the figures in more than 650,000 publicly available research articles and their figures to identify best science communication practices.4.5 The group found a clear relationship between an article’s graphical information and its scholarly reach: papers that contained more diagrams and illustrations tended to have more citations and greater impact, suggesting that visual information can improve an article’s clarity.4.5

To join the visual bandwagon and increase the audience of research articles, many scientific journals now encourage scientists to develop graphic summaries that visually explain the article’s take-home message.6 This kind of visual summary makes it easier and more intuitive for readers to decide whether they want to read the entire article when (virtually) flipping through the pages of the magazine or when browsing their social media feeds.

Infographics serve a similar purpose to graphic summaries, but are usually aimed at a wider audience on social media platforms. Several research studies have compared the effect of openly shared infographics versus an article abstract on article visibility and reach.7-9 Overall, these studies found that people were more likely to reshare, like, and read an article associated with an infographic compared to a block of text, confirming that graphical representations play a large role in disseminating research and to readers.7-9

Take a look at Graph's infographic

Scientists can easily create images, posters, infographics and slide presentations with Mind the Graph’s design platform.

Watch out for the graphics

Filling the visual design gap

It is clear that scientists should include as many graphic elements as possible in their science communication strategy, but creating visually appealing, informative images can seem like an insurmountable barrier for many researchers who lack graphic design skills. Mind the Graph has teamed up with researchers and graphic designers to remove this barrier to accessible, effective science communication. Together, the team developed an easy plug-and-play platform that contains thousands of pre-designed templates for scientists to create their own infographics, graphic summaries, slide presentations and posters in record time.10,11 Note that the Graph image gallery contains more than 65,000 scientifically accurate images that researchers can arrange and edit in a workspace the size of the intended graph. In addition, scientists can request graphics on demand from the organization’s custom design service in case their favorite organism or molecule is not available. The platform offers a free plan to create one customizable graph and affordable options are available for interns, scientists and research groups depending on their needs. With this platform, it takes very little effort for researchers to wear the hat of a graphic designer and translate groundbreaking findings into beautiful, easy-to-understand graphics for any audience.

References

  1. A. Pavio, K. Csapo, “Picture superiority in free recall: imagery or dual coding?” Cognit Psychol, 5(2):176–206, 1973.
  2. RE Mayer, JK Gallini, “When is an illustration worth ten thousand words?” J Educ Psychol82(4):715–726, 1973.
  3. M. Smiklas, The Power of Infographics, Pearson Education, 2012.
  4. P. Lee et al., “Visiometry: analyzing visual information in the scientific literature,” IEEE Xplore4(1):117-29, 2018.
  5. “Graphical Details: A Scientific Study of the Importance of Diagrams in Science,” The Economist2016, https://www.economist.com/science-and-technology/2016/06/16/graphic-details, accessed 29 August 2022.
  6. CC West et al., “Promoting Your Research Using Infographics and Visual Summaries,” JPRAS73(12):2103-05, 2020
  7. KN Kunze et al., “Infographics are more effective at increasing social media attention than original research articles: an altmetrics-based analysis,” Arthroscopy37(8):2591-7, 2021.
  8. S. Huang et al., “The Effect of Infographic Promotion on Research Dissemination and Readership: A Randomized Controlled Trial,” CJEM20(6):826-33, 2018.
  9. AM Ibrahim et al., “Visual summaries of social media research dissemination: a prospective, cross-over case-control study,” Ann Surg266(6):e46-e48, 2017.
  10. J. Mrudula, G. Latika, “Preparing infographics for social media post-publication research,” JKMS36(5):e41, 2021.
  11. A. Nascimento, “Beware of Graphics: The Best Visual Communication Tool in Science,” A life of an explorer2022, https://researcher.life/blog/article/ultimate-tool-for-visual-communication/, accessed August 29, 2022.
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