Several studies, journal guidelines, and discourses on scientific writing1-10 affirm the critical role that tables, figures, and graphs (or display items) play in enhancing the quality of manuscripts. Scientific tables and graphs can be utilized to represent sizeable numerical or statistical data in a time- and space-effective manner. Readers are often drawn towards tables and figures, because they perceive it as easy-reading, as compared to reading a verbose account of the same content. They rightly assume that these display items will provide them with a larger amount of information in a shorter time span. At the manuscript screening stage, these display items offer reviewers and journal editors a quick overview of the study findings, and once the paper is published, they do the same for readers (some of whom look only at these display items and not at the rest of the manuscript7). However, tables and figures only add value to the format of a research report, if they are brief yet sufficiently informative.
These visual elements help authors present detailed results and complex relationships, patterns, and trends clearly and concisely;1-8,11,13,14 reduce the length of the manuscript;3,5,13,15 and enhance readers’ understanding of the study results.11,12 Therefore, these tools are integral to the format of a research paper because, if clear and well-organized, they speed up the comprehension and interpretation of the study’s findings. But while well-presented tables and figures in research papers can efficiently capture and present information, poorly crafted tables and figures can confuse readers and impair the effectiveness of a paper.16 To help authors get the balance right, this article presents some essential guidelines to the effective use of tables and figures in research papers.
Planning your paper: When to use tables and figures in scientific papers
Producing effective tables and figures requires careful planning that begins at the manuscript writing stage itself. Here’s how to go about it:
Examples of well-prepared tables and figures
This section presents one example each of a well-prepared table and a well-designed figure.
The table below is taken from a dietary study on chick-rearing macaroni penguins26 and is an example of an effective table for the following reasons:
Examples of an effective figure (graph)
The figure below from a paper on the efficacy of oyster reefs as natural breakwaters27, scores on several counts:
1. The informative title that immediately tells the reader what to expect in the graph.
2. The axes are labeled clearly.
Figures and tables, or display items, are powerful communication tools—they give your manuscript a professional feel, attract and sustain the interest of readers, and efficiently present large amounts of complex information.7 Moreover, as most journals editors and reviewers will glance at these display items before they begin a full reading of your paper, their importance cannot be overemphasized.