Figures catch the reader’s eyes and complement your text. They present your data and explain them visually. And thanks to the expanding list of software options out there, you can go beyond simple bar graphs and charts and make your paper stand out.
If you’re used to always using Excel or SPSS, it may pay off to try some newer or more elaborate solutions to really grab your readers’ attention. The following list includes the basics and other more elaborate and specialized options.
Among these, you should find something to suit your abilities and budget.
What you’ll learn in this post
• Free and paid software packages that will make your scientific figures anywhere from sufficient to mind-blowing.
• The various functions available for presenting data, no matter how complex.
• Things you never knew you could do with scientific figures to make your manuscript even more appealing and impactful.
Price: Depends on MS Office package and region
Best for: Analysis of moderate amounts of data (as opposed to huge data sets). Well suited for financial data visualization, not so much for advanced math, physics, etc.
Excel for figures
Microsoft Excel is a tried-and-true spreadsheet tool that can also turn numerical data into figures. Plotting your data is pretty easy in Excel. You can choose from many popular graphs, like lines, bars, pie charts, and scatter plots.
Chart design is limited, though, so it definitely won’t be the most eye-catching piece of your article. It simply gets the job done. Excel will suffice for a basic population study or representation of survey results.
Excel worksheets are intuitive, at least for basic applications. You have to first work with your data before you can plot it. Nonstandard data fitting can be confusing. Modifying the data range may also pose problems. Rescaling plots with several added elements requires adjustments, which can be annoying and take time.
You can optimize repetitive actions using macros (pre-programmed procedures). That comes in handy when preparing series of plots; e.g., exchange rates over the same period for different currencies.
Price: 30-days free trial, from $99/month; student discounts are widely available and greatly reduce prices
Best for: Social sciences data analysis and basic data representation
SPSS for figures
SPSS seems it’s been around for ages, and indeed the user experience feels like something from decades ago.
But SPSS is strong in complex, multi-variant analysis, and it can handle large datasets (if you have some time to spare). As the name indicates, it’s primarily meant for social sciences data analysis: Statistical Package for the Social Sciences.
You can easily display your data in one of SPSS’s standard charts. The Chart Builder tool contains a preview window. Use the drag and drop mechanism to pick the chart and its elements from the list. It is intuitive and straightforward.
SPSS is very well suited for survey data analysis. It accepts data fed from Excel, which comes in handy as it exceeds the latter with functionalities. SPSS is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux (earlier versions).
Price: from $94/year
Best for: econometrics
Stata for figures
Stata is a statistical analysis tool chosen eagerly by Excel users when handling big data that otherwise jam the Excel engine. Its Graph Editor contains all standard plot types used in statistics. Line patterns and markers are plenty, making the graphs easy to read.
During your session with Stata, the program keeps the last graph in the memory. Rename your graphs to keep more than one open. For use in a publication, copy–paste the graph or export it to one of the vector or raster formats. Un-exported graphs disappear when the session is closed.
Stata is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
Price: Free 1-year license available for students and teachers, $70/month with yearly subscription
Best for: Big data analysis
Tableau for figures
Tableau is foremost for data visualization. Unlike in Excel, data in Tableau are plotted first and then edited, which enables analysis and adjustments. Point it to the data, and the program will suggest a chart type. You can then manually change it.
Tableau has a rich but self-explanatory user interface. Your chart takes up the main panel, while only your data labels are listed in the side panel.
Neat and clear graphics generally only take a few clicks. Copy the view and export it as an image file to create a figure.
Tableau is particularly well suited for big data analysis. Its power lies in its ability to extract and merge data from various sources, from simple files to large databases. Both researchers and the business sector use Tableau. It’s available for Windows and macOS.
Price: Free for educational use, from $35/month with yearly subscription
Best for: Biomedical, animation-style illustrations with character
BioRender for figures
BioRender offers an abundant library of ready icons for various biology and medicine-related topics. Drag and drop, and you can freely arrange them against each other, scale to your needs, or play with the colors – all within minutes. Note that you can’t interfere with the shapes’ design – you can’t modify, add, or delete part of the object.
In BioRender, you compose your illustration by putting together icons and shapes from the library. There are over 40,000 icons made by medical graphics experts to browse from. You can upload your own ones, but you can’t draw them in the program.
BioRender is very efficient at creating figures to explain biological cycles, processes, or structures. The figures are textbook–style. A watermark will be visible if you use the free version.
BioRender is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
Price: Part of the Creative Cloud suite or as a separate software, so prices vary based on your needs
Best for: Custom editing figures from scratch or based on exported elements (e.g., biological structures)
Adobe Illustrator for figures
Adobe Illustrator is a graphic design mainstay. If you have some design sense, jump in and make some fantastic figures like a design pro.
You do need at least some short training to be able to make use of its many tools. But with a few days of experience, you can create elegant graphics and construct 3D objects that can be freely rotated and edited.
Illustrator uses a “layers” concept that lets you separate elements of the graphics you’re working on. You can combine lines and shapes to create new ones. And you can precisely modify curvature or switch between sharp and round corners. If you get good, it takes just a few clicks to turn a square into an apple.
Adobe Illustrator supports several vector graphics file formats. It runs on Windows or macOS.
Price: (30-day free trial) $45/month or annually: $125 student, $185 academic, $305 corporate
Best for: STEM data visualization, statistical analysis of various sets of data
GraphPad Prism for figures
GraphPad Prism is useful for more complex data fitting. It is very easy for statistical analysis. It comes with an excellent selection of plots (e.g., bubble, violin, or estimation plots) for an easy-to-read display of various types of statistical data. The program offers a range of biologically relevant plots and data formats.
You create a figure using the Layout tool. Then choose the page orientation, which charts to include, and how to arrange them. You can choose whether to keep your chart linked to the data. This way, the chart will be updated if you edit your data.
Figure formatting is very easy and quick. This software is good for group use and is very efficient when collaborating and sharing projects.
GraphPad Prism runs on Windows and macOS.
Best for: Creating illustrations
Inkscape for figures
Inkscape is most often described as an open-source alternative to Adobe Illustrator. Inkscape provides vector graphics and comes in handy for quick and easy illustration drawing. Its text editing options are, however, limited.
Inkscape is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
Price: Free for students and educators, otherwise from $99/year
Best for: Structural biology figure rendering
PyMol for figures
PyMol is a good choice when you need to visualize biological structures (e.g., DNA, RNA, proteins). The program offers several display modes (stick, ribbon, electric potential) of the molecules and a possibility of 3D manipulation to ensure the best viewing angle in the final 2D figure.
You can import the structures from the publicly available Protein Data Bank and freely adjust the display mode and colors. It is of invaluable help in explaining biological complexes and mechanisms of biomolecules’ interaction.
PyMol is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
Price: Free 30-day trial, from $49 for student (perpetual license)
Best for: Mathematical issues – focused on advanced modeling, such as in STEM
MatLab for figures
This is a popular programmers’ choice, and you need some coding experience to use it effectively. MatLab is code-based, so you don’t need to remember editing steps. That‘s a great advantage, such as when preparing a series of similar plots. It exports to commonly used file formats, like EPS, PDF, and TIFF.
MatLab is available for Windows, macOS, and Linux.
Price: Free Learning Edition, student version from $69/year
Best for: Data analysis, curve fitting, statistics
OriginPro for figures
OriginPro is quite simple when transitioning from Excel. It is particularly well suited for mathematical modeling and statistical analysis, yet easy to use without prior experience. It works with other popular statistical analysis platforms and common programming languages. Interactive curve fitting is easy and efficient with the preview option.
OriginPro produces publication-quality figures that you can easily adjust and revise. The line markers are clear to read in grayscale, a feature important for black-and-white printouts. A simplified version simply called Origin is available for beginners.
Origin requires Windows or a virtual machine if you use another OS.
Best for: Biomedical image analysis
ImageJ for figures
ImageJ is a common tool in biology labs wherever image analysis is of interest. Designed to be user-friendly and “light” in its hardware requirements, ImageJ serves researchers from students to project leaders. All its tools are available in the menu bar.
This software aids primary analysis of microscope images or fluorescent scans. It’s commonly used to overlay images from several channels. Signal intensity profiling or mathematical operations on images are straightforward. You can also easily adjust contrast and brightness with a direct preview.
ImageJ saves graphics in raster formats (e.g., TIFF). Usually, you’ll need another graphic tool to prepare the final figure – often a gallery view of all the channels.
As a widespread, open-source software, it enjoys strong interdisciplinary community support. And you can find plenty of plug-ins for it. It also works well integrated with other software. Ease of access is a solid advantage of ImageJ and a reason for its rapid growth, as the platform co-evolves together with life sciences.
It runs on Windows, macOS, and Linux.
And that’s just for starters!
To find out what to put in your figures, be sure to read this Learning Lab post. As for software, don’t stop here. Dig around and see what new SaaS and custom graphics packages are emerging. Great figures will increase your impact and help you beat your competition.