Creating Graphical Abstracts

graphical abstract – Edanz

A graphical abstract, or visual abstract, is a single pictorial summary of your manuscript’s main findings.

As journals are increasingly centered on online publications after so many decades of paper distribution, graphical abstracts are use increasingly often. These images (sort of like infographics, sort of like comics) are not only a summary but also an advertisement for the article.

And unlike an abstract, there are fewer rules. This means that knowing the value of, and expectations on, your graphical abstract, will help you prepare it better.

What you’ll learn in this post

• What a graphical or visual abstract is.

• How adding a graphical abstract can help communicate your science to a wider audience.

• The elements of a successful graphical abstract.

• Examples of graphical abstracts for research papers and systematic reviews.

• How to make your own graphical abstract or use a specialized service to make a customized one for you.

The benefits of graphical abstracts

Graphical abstracts can give your manuscript added appeal and clarity. Even more than a concise abstract they can communicate your work rapidly. And together with a plain language summary, they’re a reader-friendly way to make your work understood.

Online publication allows manuscripts to be more visual and interactive, and editors use those features to help attract more readers. They also increase social sharing on platforms like Twitter and LinkedIn, as they can be easily attached to a post and show up in other users’ social feeds. This matters more and more, as publications increase along with the need for self-promotion to gain visibility.

For you as an author, graphical abstracts may seem counterintuitive and insufficient. You’re used to explaining exactly what your manuscript is about in a nice concise summary, with each section of your paper represented.

The idea behind a graphical abstract though, is to convey this same information in a single image, with limited text.

In addition to quickly helping readers understand the findings of the paper and whether it’s relevant to them, graphical abstracts also remove make life easier for non-native English speakers having to write and read in English.

Effective English Writing

Get insights from a real journal editor!

This quick handy PDF highlights what to do (and what NOT to do) when writing your research manuscript.

Our experts show you how to write effectively for better readability and faster publication!

Tips for making a great graphical/visual abstract

If your target journal requires you to submit a graphical abstract along with your manuscript, here are some tips to help you design one:

  • Think about what your paper is describing: a mechanism, a theory, a structure, or a cause and effect. What kind of visual would best showcase this concept?
  • Consider the essential elements involved in your study. Thinking about key words here can help you determine what to include to draw the interest of readers.
  • Keep your abstract to a single image or split panels.
  • Don’t just re-use one of the figures from your manuscript. Consider the graphical abstract an additional image of its own that brings together the ideas shown within the manuscript.
  • Avoid including too many details or distracting elements. Label any items clearly and show processes with arrows.
  • Use only details from your own findings, not any referenced literature, unless absolutely necessary.
  • Most of the software packages you use to make figures can be used to make graphical abstracts.

Examples of graphical abstracts

Basic graphical abstract

Here’s an example of a nice and clean, very accessible graphical, visual abstract:

Blatuidi, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

There’s nothing fancy here. It’s essentially a cartoon or infographic. What it does, though, in just a few words, is set out what they did, what happened, and what it means. Simple.

That one’s a bit more creative, and certainly not elaborate. Elsevier advocates a simple three-frame approach to visual abstracts, set much like a weekday newspaper cartoon:

  • Panel 1: Give the context background
  • Panel 2: Show the methodology or make a second point
  • Panel 3: Give the outcome (or a third point)

A cartoon style visual representation is one common way. Another approach is a flow diagram that illustrates the process and affects (i.e., what happens, then what, and finally what) of our study.

And a third way is visual systems that, rather than focusing on the experiments you performed, plots out the big picture.

As far as software to create your graphical abstract, see our article on software for scientific figures. This is a thorough list, and most of the same packages will apply.

Graphical abstracts for systematic reviews

A systematic review is at the top of the evidence pyramid, as it is essentially critical research compiling other research. We focus on systematic reviews a great deal, such as in using the P.I.E.C.E.S. method to assemble them and in assessing their internal and external validity.

Like other research, systematic reviews can expand their appeal with a clean informative visual abstract. Here are two examples.

BMJ visual graphical abstract
Musso Giovanni, Gambino Roberto, Cassader Maurizio, Paschetta Elena. Efficacy and safety of dual SGLT 1/2 inhibitor sotagliflozin in type 1 diabetes: meta-analysis of randomised controlled trials BMJ 2019; 365 :l1328 (https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l1328) – Graphical abstract

“This is a very effective visual abstract. The key messages are apparent immediately, including the risk as well as benefit. The design is simple and attractive, making it easy to comprehend the study,” says Dr. Daniel McGowan, Edanz Science Director.

Here’s another.

BMJ visual abstract graphical abstract
Lisboa Bastos Mayara, Tavaziva Gamuchirai, Abidi Syed Kunal, Campbell Jonathon R, Haraoui Louis-Patrick, Johnston James C et al. Diagnostic accuracy of serological tests for covid-19: systematic review and meta-analysis BMJ 2020; 370 :m2516 (https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m2516) – Graphical abstract

“Overall this is another good example of a visual abstract with effective use of color. I like it, but do you think perhaps even more of the information could have been presented visually?” Dr. McGowan comments.

Indeed it is somewhat compact for such a sweeping topic. An edit may also help with textual consistency. The color scheme is effective though, and the reader can quickly grasp what’s going on in this paper.

Where to find more graphical abstracts and how to make yours

For examples of good graphical abstracts, Elsevier has several good examples for different types of manuscripts, while Cell (PDF link) shows how initial abstract submissions were improved for better visual impact.

But what if you’re not an artist? Or just want to focus on words and science?

We’ve got a solution.

You can hire Edanz to work with you to create a graphical abstract for your manuscript. Simply get in touch with our Publication Support team or have a look at our research services. We’ll assign a pro artist to get your findings across visually. The more ways you can communicate your valuable research the better!

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