So, you have submitted a paper, and now you want (or need) to create an accompanying graphical abstract – but you’re not sure how. Keep reading, as in this blog we’ll tell you what you should and shouldn’t do if you want to create a good graphical abstract!
A good graphical abstract can help you get impact
Making your own graphical abstract is a great way to help you learn how to communicate your research visually. It can even help you create impact outside of academia. If you are on social media like LinkedIn or Twitter, a well-designed graphical abstract might be the thing that draws people to your paper and gets people interested in your research.
In fact, Sandra Oska and colleagues showed that tweets with graphical abstracts are viewed twice as often, and that they attract five times more engagement. They are also associated with increased Altmetrics (scores that measure the attention your article has gotten across a variety of platforms) than tweets that only contain a citation. That’s why we love these visual summaries!
What is the goal of a graphical abstract?
The scientific journals seem to agree: a graphical abstract should “should allow readers to quickly gain an understanding of the take-home message of the paper” (Elsevier) or “readers can absorb the core message of your paper with just a glance” (Cell Press). Yet, when we look at their “good examples”, we find that even four or five glances are not enough to understand what those graphical abstracts are actually trying to say.
We’re on a mission to help you make a graphical abstract that does succeed in providing a summary in a single glance.
To be fair, for very complex studies a single-glance summary may be a little ambitious. A good graphical abstract does not need to provide a complete overview of everything you did and found in your study, but it will summarize your findings, intrigue your audience and tempt them to click and read the full article.
Let’s design a better graphical abstract
To show you the best design practices for a graphical abstract, we’ll take you through a few examples.
Consider the abstract below: the original abstract (left) was redesigned by Cell Press (right) and looks cleaner and slicker. We can see that some kind of molecular mechanism was studied, but we still have no idea what the authors contributed to the depicted mechanism. Let us take you along while we go through the steps to make this redesigned abstract more effective.
1 Start with the key message from your paper
First and foremost, you’ll have to think about the key message of your paper. You have probably written a conclusion for your abstract, but you’ll have to transform that message into something even shorter for a graphical abstract. That way, it will nicely fit into your graphic, where it can provide a little bit of context while specifying what you worked on in that context.
Let your reader know what makes your findings unique, or what the added value of this paper is.
To write a good main message, check out our tips to summarize your research into a single sentence in our blog on designing a poster presentation. That single sentence should always be a conclusive statement. And it will become the title of your abstract. Later, we’ll introduce the proper graphics to support this message.
Don’t just copy the title of your paper onto your graphical abstract.
The paper of the abstract we showed earlier is titled “Acid extrusion from human spermatozoia is mediated by flagellar voltage gated proton channel.” It’s not very easy to understand, let alone at a glance, when you’re scrolling past many abstracts. So, we need to rewrite their key message into something a little easier to digest.
The star of their paper is the proton channel Hv1. This channel plays an important role in the activation of sperm cells to help them move through the female reproductive tract. We can summarize this into: “Voltage-gated proton channel Hv1 stimulates motility in human sperm cells”. By moving the most important element to the front of the sentence and simplifying the language, it is now much easier to understand the message. The mechanism through which this happens (‘acid extrusion’, as they call it in their paper title) can then be visualized in the rest of the abstract.
2 Write your title as a conclusion
You might be tempted to make your abstract title a question. While it’s certainly possible and still a good way to provide context; we would suggest inserting your conclusion as a statement if you can. It relieves the viewers of having to draw their own conclusions and it saves you the precious space of having to insert a concluding remark elsewhere in the figure.
“Voltage-gated proton channel Hv1 and motility in human sperm cells”
“Does voltage-gated proton channel Hv1 stimulate motility in human sperm cells?”
“Voltage-gated proton channel Hv1 stimulates motility in human sperm cells”
Different ways to write a title, where a conclusive statement provides the most information
3 Tell a story in your abstract
Before you open your design software of choice, think about what you will be putting on display in your abstract. Good graphic design can really enhance good content, but even the best design cannot save content that’s been poorly thought out. Turning your research into a short story can help. You’ve already thought about the most important piece of content – your unique key message – but there are two more things to think about to be able to tell your story.
4 What is/are your primary outcome(s)?
Your primary outcomes form the evidence that supports your key message. Take the most important ones (we suggest limiting it to three) and write them down in single sentences. If you consider it absolutely necessary you can include p-values, but we don’t think it is a requirement for getting your message across (after all, you already selected the most important outcomes and they are more likely to be statistically significant).
5 Which study design and/or methods have you used?
Your methods may provide essential information about the context of your results and help readers interpret your outcomes. Although your methods are a very important part of your paper, not all your methods are equally important to someone viewing your abstract on a place like Twitter. So, which ones are most important? This is how you find out:
1 List all the components that make up your study, e.g.: the species in which the study was performed, the design in which a certain treatment was applied, the sample size and the ways in which your outcomes were measured.
2 Take some time to eliminate the components that don’t particularly strengthen your message, or that are commonplace to your field and therefore implied. You don’t need to include those in your abstract: anyone with an interest can find them in your paper.
How do I decide which methods to include and exclude?
What is and what isn’t important to support your message will vary based on your field of research, but here’s an example: you’ve found an abstract showing that a new molecule reduces tumor growth. Promising, right? But that feeling tends to dissipate a little when you discover that this was merely tested in vitro rather than in mice or a group of patients, or that this was a pilot study with 2 patients instead of a randomized controlled trial with 2000 patients.
In other words, whatever information may change your assessment of the results should be in your abstract. In contrast, it probably won’t matter as much whether they measured this tumor growth using a PET-scan or a CT-scan – the implications remain the same. There is no need to fill a third (or less) of that abstract with an image of a CT-scanner, it will only distract from the main message.
Main message: Vitamin D supplementation is associated with lower risk of COVID-19 infection and mortality
Most important method: Retrospective cohort study amongst US veterans receiving vitamin D3 or D2 supplementation.
Vitamin D2 and D3 supplementation reduced risk of COVID infection by 20 and 28%
Vitamin D2 and D3 supplementation was associated with a 33% and 25% decrease in mortality within 30 days of infection
6 Make sure your abstract can be understood without the paper
In a graphical abstract, space is limited. So keep it simple and don’t add more than your conclusion, context, primary outcome(s), and most important methods. In fact, these elements are all you need to form a complete story. By keeping it to the point, viewers should be able to understand your abstract and thus the essence of your research without needing any other information. This also means you’ll have to explain abbreviations that are not widely known.
Case study: adding a title for context
Let’s take another look at that Cell Press abstract. We adapted it to make it much easier to understand on its own, as you can see below. We added a title that is the conclusion of the paper for context, we moved around some components to help guide the viewer through the abstract and added more text labels to help viewers interpret what’s going on.
How we improved the abstract:
We used the conclusion as a title to provide context.
We made the methods section smaller to remove emphasis.
We added labels to show the channel states and their effect on sperm motility, as well as labels to show the protons.
We changed the heading to more clearly show what causes the channel activation and introduced a gradient to emphasize the change in environment.
7 Visualize your methods and outcomes
If you have written down your story, like in the example of vitamin D, you can choose how to visualize your data most effectively. In short: if something becomes clearer when you visualize it, you should visualize it. So don’t use tables when you can use graphs! Of course, whether you can visualize something depends on your research.
Don’t use tables in your graphical abstract (unless your paper is about furniture)
Have you found the missing piece of a molecular mechanism puzzle? You’ll probably want to show where this newly discovered piece fits in, using a diagram.
Have you compared two types of treatment? You’ll want to visualize both legs so that a viewer can easily compare the outcomes. In any case, try to keep your visualization as simple as possible and make them show a single primary outcome.
Do not copy and paste graphs from your paper: not only are they too detailed and difficult to read, they also leave too much room for interpretation by the reader. Instead, simplify the chart to visualize just your main take-away. This may mean you’ll have to find a new, more suitable type of chart to show your main outcome.
The possibilities are endless but don’t get carried away; the goal is to keep it simple! If you’re visualizing multiple outcomes, try to be consistent in how you visualize them. Using similar charts next to each other will make them easier to interpret (and make the abstract look better too).
Case study: how to visualize tables and locations
First, we’ll get rid of the table (since tables are not visualizations and very hard to read) and instead create a bar chart. This makes it easier to compare the data points. Is there anything else we can visualize? The study populations, of course! We’re not sure where these territories are nor do we readily recognize their flags, so we’d rather have them placed on a map. Who knows, even if it’s not the aim of the paper, your readers may even walk away with a little more geographical knowledge.
Finally, the original title and conclusion have a lot of overlap, yet the title tells us very little. Do you know what ESKD means? We don’t. So, we wrote the term out in full when we swapped the title for the conclusion. This is important for the non-experts that read your graphical abstract, and it gets rid of the overlap.
How we improved the abstract:
We used the conclusion as a title and spelled out the abbreviation.
We visualized the data in a graph to draw attention to the differences between populations.
We simplified the color scheme for a more professional look.
We used a map to show the approximate locations of the studied populations.
Decide what goes where
Once you have figured out the story and the main visualizations you want to include, you need to bring them together on your canvas. Adhering to the principles listed below will help you guide the viewer through the abstract and will strengthen your story.
Make sure people know how to read your abstract
Generally, for those reading in English it is most natural to read from top to bottom and from left to right. Organize your methods and outcomes in such a way that the order makes sense to the viewer: guide them from one part of your story to the next.
Take a look at the abstract below, again an example provided by Elsevier. If you’re like us, your eyes are shooting all over the place, following arrows that go against your natural direction of reading. It’s unclear where we need to start reading this abstract.
They seem to have discovered a number of things, but what is their key message and order of the information? When we read their paper to find out, it appeared they wanted to tell us that there are several challenges to obtaining placebo drugs in drug trials, but we couldn’t quite get that from this visual.
Use text in your graphical abstract to help viewers understand your message
Despite the name graphical abstract, text is not forbidden. So do not be afraid to use it! We already talked about adding the title to help people understand the abstract. But also think of labels and short descriptions of processes.
An arrow by itself, for example, could mean many things: it could represent a causal effect, a direction or a next step, or it could point to an example. An arrow with the text ‘activates’ above it can only mean one thing. Try to leave as little as possible up to the viewer’s interpretation.
Make sure people know what your arrow means. Does the arrow indicate a reading direction, causal effect, or next step?
Keep the design as simple as possible for a professional look
To make sure your designs don’t look cluttered, use colors, fonts, text sizes and weights sparingly and intentionally. Too many variations of these will only compete with each other for attention, leaving you with the opposite of the hierarchy that you were trying to create. Some tips to simplify the design:
Choose a maximum of three text sizes of one font. The smallest text can be between 6-8 pt.
Make sure that the main headings are fatter (a higher font weight) than the body text.
Choose a single color for your design and vary with shades of this color. Combine it with black, white and grays.
Only use icons if they speak for themselves
Are you tempted to add lots of icons to your abstract – after all, it’s a graphical abstract, isn’t it? Think twice before you introduce them. Many icons are ambiguous in their meaning and do not actually make it easier to digest information. Often, you need both the icon and accompanying text to capture the complexity you need, in which case using only text may be clearer.
We advise you to only use icons to emphasize your point when they speak for themselves and are universally understood. This means they are often used in other contexts to depict the same thing and are thus already familiar to the viewer – think the recycling or biohazard icon. They may also be helpful when you want to show an emotion that is hard to put into text. If you use icons: make sure they all have the same style (outlined or filled, thick or thin lines) to make your abstract look cohesive.
Case study: distill your key message and primary outcomes to tell a story
We have applied our rules to improve the aforementioned abstract about placebos. The authors neatly summarized their key findings and subsequent implications in their article. These main points make a complete story, so they didn’t have to include all the other details in their abstract.
Note how we spread these main points across the abstract and translated their implications into a call to action. We organized the information in accordance with the (Western) natural reading direction. Because their primary outcomes did not have to be compared to each other, there was no need to visualize the data. Instead, we chose some stylistically similar graphics to help people see the problems at a glance.
How we improved the abstract:
We’ve written the information as a story.
We ordered information in the natural reading direction from top to bottom.
We used graphics in the same style to make it look more professional.
We only included the main outcomes.
More tips (as if we haven’t given you enough)
Having taken in all this information, you are almost ready to design your own abstract. But before you do, we have some final comments that you should take into account:
Check the technical guidelines of the journal before you start: the required dimensions of the image will affect your design. In a landscape orientation you may want to tell your story from left to right, in a portrait or square orientation you may choose differently. Make sure to print some tests while designing to ensure everything is visible and readable at that size.
Use words that are in line with the language, terms and definitions that were used in the paper to prevent misrepresentation of results.
Only use images and icons for which you have obtained the appropriate rights (you can find copyright-free icons on Google Fonts, The Noun Project and Flaticons – the latter two require a small fee). Check our favorite platforms for images and icons in our blog post.
Are you sharing your abstract in a place other than your paper itself? Include a citation to the article so that everyone who’s interested can easily find your paper.
All right, it’s time to go and make a beautiful and effective abstract for the whole internet to see! If you still have questions or are in doubt about how to tackle your own specific story after reading this blog, you can always contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org or check out our Design Crash Course if you want to learn more.
Disclaimer: we are not critiquing the science and papers behind the abstracts shown in our examples; we are simply suggesting how that science could have been communicated more effectively through an improved abstract.
Written with Floor Baas. Floor is a MSc student of Biomedical Sciences and has a great interest in how science communication can help research reach its potential. During her studies, she has come across many examples of posters, graphical abstracts and presentations, of which some could have benefitedfrom an upgrade. As an intern at The Online Scientist, she’s gained experience in how to help scientists bring across their message to their audience.
Liesbeth combines her knowledge of science communication, technology and design to explain difficult topics to a wide audience. You can use her practical tips immediately in your (poster) presentations to create a bigger impact. She developed dozens of websites, infographics and animated videos, and regularly gives workshops about design at The Online Scientist.