Graphical abstracts are incredibly popular in scientific research these days. The best scientific journals are already using them and more are about to.

Our goal with this post is to connect you with the necessary steps to create awesome graphical abstracts and outline the basics of graphic design for scientific publications.

There are a few crucial steps to create a graphical abstract. If you’re not familiar with what we mean by graphical abstract, it’s literally a scientific figure that explains scientific information in a visual form. A modern way to call it is “an infographic”.

See one interesting graphical abstract example below:

image (80)

And there are at Mind the Graph a few more examples of graphical abstracts that are definitely worth checking out.

In this post, you’ll learn essential concepts about designing a graphical abstract, discover how to create an abstract, and use a powerful abstract design tool called Mind the Graph to create graphical abstracts for your publications.

What is a Graphical abstract?

A graphical abstract is one single‐panel image that is designed to give readers an immediate understanding of the take‐home message of the scientific paper.

Its intent is to encourage browsing, promote interdisciplinary scholarship, and help readers quickly identify which papers are most relevant to their research interests –  according to the Cell Press guideline1, which also applies to Elsevier2 journals and many more publishers.

The ideal graphical abstract should be self-explanatory. The reader should quickly understand it and be able to decide whether to read your paper or not. If you achieve this, your graphical abstract is successful and effective.

An important thing to have in mind is that your research is already pretty complex. So, your graphical abstract shouldn’t be.

Be concise and direct, use a minimal amount of words, and rely on powerful graphics for your graphical abstract.

Mind the Graph Graphical Abstract Template, click on the image to go to Templates.
Mind the Graph Graphical Abstract Template

What makes an effective graphical abstract?

A graphical abstract is a figure that explains the message of a research paper in a clear and attractive way.

It’s generally published together with other elements of the paper, like TITLE, LIST OF AUTHORS, and ABSTRACT.

The idea of the graphical abstract is to communicate together with the other elements of the scientific paper.

Not all publishers are using graphical abstracts at the moment, but this is an initiative of Elsevier, probably the biggest scientific publisher in the world, which is followed by some important ones, like Cell and Springer.

There is not a “correct” form to create a graphical abstract, but specific guidelines are being published.

We will share some information from a guideline published by Cell Press called “Cell Press Graphical Abstract Guidelines”.

An effective graphical abstract will attract the attention of your reader and it’s useful to screen the information very rapidly.

It does not intend to substitute the paper, but rather to attract curiosity to it. The intention is mainly to briefly introduce the subject of the paper and summarize information.

Mind the Graph illustration: Protein Synthesis
Click on the image to use this Mind the Graph illustration: Protein Synthesis

How to make a graphical abstract?

So, how to make an abstract? The basic process of creating a graphical abstract are:

  1. Conceptualize
  2. Sketch
  3. Design

Most scientists believe that they cannot create effective graphical abstracts because they cannot illustrate. That’s not true at all. Scientific illustrations are just a part of an effective graphical abstract, and while no one can conceptualize your graphical abstracts, you can find scientific illustrations on Mind the Graph.

Find Scientific Illustrations on Mind the Graph's gallery.
Find Scientific Illustrations on Mind the Graph’s gallery.

Back to those three steps: (1) concept, (2) sketch, and (3) design & refine.

The first two steps are done on paper, and we only move to graphic design software for the third step.

The graphical abstract concept is the very first thing.

You need to decide what is the MAIN MESSAGE of your graphical abstract and who is your audience. It’s like thinking about what story you want to tell and to whom.

You did the research and have a lot of results to communicate, but remember, don’t overcomplicate. Try to think like the reader and summarize your paper to the most important thing you discovered.

Your goal with the graphical abstract is normally defined by the CONTENT and AUDIENCE. So, keep it in mind. And keep it simple. Here are some graphical abstract tips to help you create the best abstract ever.

Focus on content uniqueness and clarity

The graphical abstract for a paper should:

  • Have a clear start and end, “reading” from top‐to‐bottom or left‐to‐right
  • Provide a visual indication of the biological context of the results depicted (subcellular location, tissue or cell type, species, etc.)
  • Be distinct from any model figures or diagrams included in the paper itself
  • Emphasize the new findings from the current paper without including excess details from previous literature
  • Avoid the inclusion of features that are more speculative (unless the speculative nature can be made apparent visually)
  • Not include data items of any type; all the content should be in a graphical form

Keep it simple

The graphical abstract should also:

  • Use simple labels
  • Use text sparingly
  • Highlight one process or make one point clear
  • Be free of distracting and cluttering elements

Sketch first

We encourage you to sketch your graphical abstract ideas by hand first, even before seating in front of your computer.

Most of us don’t have professional design skills, nor have access to professional design software. Luckily for you, there is no need. The video below shows an interesting tutorial on How to create a graphical abstract for Elsevier using the platform Mind the Graph.

For the sketch, first select just the necessary visual elements (a cell, protein, chemical compound, animal …) and the textual elements that will accompany them.

Always prefer illustrations and visual abstract icons to text. They communicate more directly.

When you are organizing the elements of the sketch, consider that they have to be arranged in some sort of order. Organize your graphical abstract from left to right and/or from top to down.

Another aspect you should consider is to avoid having too many visual elements scattered around the sketch. All elements should be somehow connected to each other, sorted into groups that have something in common.

Avoid using boxes around elements that fit together, just put them close together. You may use boxes to highlight some texts.

Just now you should move to graphical design software. If you don’t have access to Photoshop or Illustrator, the good ol’ Powerpoint works just as well.

You’ll likely use Google Images to find the illustrations you need. But the problem here is to find illustrations that all have the same style. Using different art styles may easily become weird.

Journals Guidelines

Your target journal’s guidelines will give you information about the font type and size, line widths, colors, and dimensions of the graphical abstract. It will also mention whether you are to provide it as a PDF, TIFF, or PNG file format.

According to the Cell Press guidelines (shared earlier), here are the Technical requirements for a graphical abstract:

  1. Size: The submitted image should be 1200 pixels square at 300 dpi.
  2. Font: Arial, 12–16 points. Smaller fonts will not be legible online
  3. Preferred file types: TIFF, PDF, JPG
  4. Content: the abstract should consist of one single panel

A note about color: Effective use of color can enhance the graphical abstract both aesthetically and by directing the reader’s attention to focal points of interest.

Authors are encouraged to select colors that are consistent with and complementary to the colors used on the Cell Press website. Heavily saturated, primary colors can be distracting.

To learn more about colors, check out the blog post article below.

Make the dimension of the artboard the exact size the journal requires it. This will allow you to match all element and font sizes with the required from the beginning.

Now draw all the visual elements you have on your sketch. You can make your work easier by adding content from repositories that contain free science art figures.

About Mind the Graph

Mind the Graph is a solid repository of scientific illustrations and abstract inspiration for making a graphical abstract online.

So if you’re wondering how to draw diagrams for scientific papers, try this tool for free and you will fall in love with it. It will for sure make your life way easier.

Also, don’t forget to consult the guide for authors of the journal where you are submitting your abstract science paper. For example, if you’re keen on Cell Press submission, make sure to go through their cover submission guidelines.

And if you wish to learn how to write an effective abstract for a research paper, below we have summarized the abstract writing steps:

  1. Write the research paper first
  2. Identify the key sections of the paper (the problem, methodology, results/findings, conclusions)
  3. Draft a description of those key sections
  4. Put it all together (compile key sections, eliminate unnecessary content, fill out what’s missing, review it after a day or two)

So, in a nutshell, this is how to write an abstract step by step.

How can you determine if your abstract is good?

How can you determine if your abstract is good? Well, there are certain characteristics of an abstract in a research paper, and the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association describes a good abstract as:

  • Accurate: It should correctly reflect the contents of the paper, and should not include any information that you don’t already have in your paper.
  • Self-contained: The abstract should define all abbreviations and acronyms. For example, rather than writing OCD, you must write it in full as Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
  • Concise and to the point: Each sentence should be informative and descriptive but as succinct as possible. Make sure that each word you use is essential.
  • Non-evaluative: An abstract is not a place to throw in your own creative insights. Do not comment on what you wrote about in your research paper.
  • Coherent and easy to read: Write the abstract in a clear way, don’t try to impress the reader with complex phrases or technical jargon. Focus on readability and try to hook your audience with the abstract (something that graphical abstracts seriously help with!).
  1. Cell Press digital image guidelines
  2. Elsevier

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