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HOME > Sci Ed > Volume 10(1); 2023 > Article
Review
The current state of graphical abstracts and how to create good graphical abstracts
Jieun Lee1orcid, Jeong-Ju Yoo2orcid
Science Editing 2023;10(1):19-26.
DOI: https://doi.org/10.6087/kcse.293
Published online: February 16, 2023

1Soonchunhyang University College of Medicine, Cheonan, Korea

2Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology, Department of Internal Medicine, Soonchunhyang University School of Medicine, Bucheon, Korea

Correspondence to Jeong-Ju Yoo puby17@naver.com
• Received: February 2, 2023   • Accepted: February 13, 2023

Copyright © 2023 Korean Council of Science Editors

This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.

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  • Graphical abstracts (GAs), also known as visual abstracts, are powerful tools for communicating complex information and ideas clearly and concisely. These visual representations aim to capture the essential findings and central message of a research study, allowing the audience to understand and remember its content quickly. This review article describes the current state of GAs, including their benefits, limitations, and future directions in the development of GAs. It also presents methods and tips for producing a GA. In Korea, more than 10 medical journals have introduced GAs from 2021 to 2022. The number of citations was higher in articles with GAs than in those without GAs in the top 10 gastroenterology journals. There are five types of GAs: conceptual diagrams, flowcharts, infographics, iconographic abstracts, and photograph-like illustrations. A limitation of the GA system is the absence of a universal standard for GAs. The key steps for creating a GA are as follows: (1) start by identifying the main message; (2) choose an appropriate visual style; (3) draw an easy-to-understand graphic; (4) use colors and other design elements; and (5) request feedback. Available tools that are useful for creating GAs include Microsoft PowerPoint, Mind the Graph, Biorender, and Canva. Another effective method is collaborating with experts. Artificial intelligence will soon be able to produce GAs more efficiently from raw data or manuscripts, which will help researchers draw GAs more easily. GAs have become a crucial art for researchers to master, and their use is expected to expand in the future.
Scientific research, including medical research, has experienced rapid changes in the last 20 years. First, the number of papers published online has rapidly increased, especially in SCIE (Science Citation Index Expanded) journals [1]. For example, 3,000 to 5,000 biomedical papers are published on PubMed every day, making it impossible to read all the papers (Fig. 1). Thus, it has become increasingly difficult for researchers to quickly find the information they need. In addition, the number of SCIE journals has substantially increased, leading to an intensified impact factor war between various journals. Journals constantly contemplate effective methods to expose articles in their journals to researchers. This trend has further been intensified by the increasing number of open access journals [2]. Moreover, social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, has begun to play a more significant role in academic fields [3]. Closed approaches to information dissemination, such as academic conferences, were important in the past, but in recent years, a novel approach involving the open distribution of academic information through social media has emerged as an alternative [4,5]. Furthermore, with the rising trend of YouTube Shorts, succinct and compelling visual data have become more influential than traditional text [6].
A graphical abstract (GA) is a visual representation of the key messages of a research paper or scientific article [6]. It typically consists of a single image or figure that summarizes the main results of the study in a concise and coherent format (Figs. 2, 3) [7,8]. The goal of a GA is to quickly convey the key takeaways of the research to a broad audience, including those who may not have the time or background to read the full article. Moreover, a GA should be differentiated from the other figures in an article.
GAs were introduced to academic journals in 2011, starting with journals in the field of chemistry [9]. Among medical journals, this trend was first started by Ibrahim et al. [10] in the Annals of Surgery in 2016. It is no surprise that GAs have become a changing face of journals, helping them to survive in the era of an overwhelming outpouring of SCIE papers, especially considering how dependent people are on visual processing. Because vision accounts for 87% of the five human senses, and color accounts for more than 60% of vision, GAs can effectively attract researchers’ attention [11,12]. Therefore, the GA system can benefit both researchers and journals: researchers can quickly identify an article’s relevance to their research just by skimming the GA, while journals can increase the number of article clicks and citations through GAs.
An increase in GAs has been observed in all academic fields. According to a study published by Yoon et al. [9] in 2017, the number of journals adopting the GA system increased by 350% from 2011 to 2015, a trend also evident in the fields of geography, sociology, psychology, economics, and political science. The same phenomenon was also observed in Korea: ever since the Journal of Korean Medical Science introduced the GA system in Korea, more than 10 medical SCIE journals based in Korea have introduced the GA system from 2021 to 2022, including the Korean Journal of Internal Medicine [13].
GAs have recently become an essential element that authors must create for publication in a journal. There has even been an increase in journals that require GAs at the first stage of submission. To sum up, authors must learn how to create GAs for successful publication and promotion of their research.
For whom GAs should be made is an important issue. Researchers need to know their readership to determine the terminology used and the level of difficulty of the GA. Since the birth of GAs is closely related to the rise of social media, which is mostly used by the general public, it is plausible to assume that the main readership of GAs is the general public. In such cases, GAs may stimulate further interest among the general public in researchers’ study findings. Therefore, considerable thought and skill are needed to create simple GAs that target nonprofessionals and are suitable for wide distribution through the media. At the same time, considering that the general public is not very interested in professional scientific research, it is also likely that professional researchers are the main readership of GAs. In this case, producing a detailed GA that uses professional terminology is effective for disseminating the study. Although no studies have specifically investigated the demographics of internet users that primarily click on GAs, one study analyzed the readership of GAs based on online engagement, such as the composite of tweets, replies, and likes. In 2019, the findings of surgical research articles were posted on Twitter in the three following forms: plain English, visual abstract, and standard tweets [14]. The overall online engagement by the public was low for all three forms (1.8 times, 2.5 times, and 1.2 times, respectively), but online engagement by healthcare professionals was active in all three forms (29.4 times, 45.3 times, 28.8 times, respectively). According to this particular study, it is more likely for healthcare professionals to take an interest in GAs than the general public, proving that it is effective for GAs to target healthcare professionals [14]. Studies on GAs are still lacking, and additional research is necessary in the future.
Creating GAs requires extra time for authors and additional costs for journals. Therefore, many studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of GAs for authors, readers, and journals. Regarding the utility of GAs, the results have varied depending on the time period and study design. In a study published in 2021, GAs published in distinguished journals, such as JAMA, BMJ, and the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM), were not effective in the dissemination of studies [15]. In addition, a study in 2016, which was published relatively early in the introduction of GAs, also demonstrated that the difference in citations according to GAs was not significant [16]. However, these unremarkable results began to change when GAs were introduced in earnest in medical journals. According to a study published in 2017 by Ibrahim et al. [10], who first introduced the GA system to the medical field, the dissemination of a study increased by about 7.7 times when a GA was included in a tweet than when only the title was tweeted. According to the aforementioned study on online engagement, healthcare professionals interacted more actively with the inclusion of a GA rather than an abstract or an article title (45.3 times vs. 29.4 times or 28.8 times, respectively). The effect of GAs encouraging online engagement in social media has been confirmed in several medical disciplines, including orthopedics, nephrology, psychiatry, and gastroenterology [13,1719].
Whether an increase in online engagement actually leads to an increase in citations or journal impact factor was recently investigated in 2022. According to the results of a study analyzing the top 10 journals in the field of gastroenterology, the number of citations in Web of Science was significantly higher for articles with GAs than for those without GAs. Additionally, journals that had adopted the GA system also showed a steeper increase in their impact factors from 2020 to 2022 than journals that had not. To sum up, GAs can help increase both the citations of individual studies and the impact factor of journals. Authors are encouraged to produce high-quality GAs to effectively publicize their research, increase their citation count, and discover potential collaborators, even if creating GAs may require additional time and effort. It is further recommended that journals introduce the GA system as early as possible in consideration of the benefits of increased citations and impact factor over the cost.
When the GA system was first implemented, GAs were mere pictures that worked as “bait,” allowing more exposure of their journals via Twitter. When researchers who used social media were interested in a GA and clicked on it, they were linked to the journal’s website. More recently, though, GAs have officially been published as a formal component of a manuscript and have undergone vast developments in structure and illustrations. Except for a few journals, there are no restrictions on the form of GAs; however, as evident from the GAs published to date, GAs can be divided into the five following types.
The first type of GA is the conceptual diagram (Fig. 4). This type of GA uses illustrations and diagrams to visually represent the key concepts and findings of a study. Conceptual diagrams are particularly useful for communicating complex or technical information, such as scientific or mathematical concepts. Another type of GA is the flowchart (Fig. 5). Flowcharts use arrows and other visual elements to delineate the flow of information or processes within a study. They are especially suited for illustrating methods or procedures used in a study. The infographic is another popular choice for GAs (Fig. 6) [13]. Infographics use a combination of illustrations, texts, and other design elements to present information in an engaging and easy-to-understand format. They are useful for summarizing extensive amounts of data in a compact and aesthetic manner. A fourth type of GA is the iconographic abstract, which uses a set of icons to represent the key findings and concepts of a study. This style of GAs is simple and easy to understand, making research accessible to a broader audience. Finally, GAs can also utilize photographs or photograph-like illustrations to depict the core message of a study. These GAs capture readers’ attention and can be particularly effective in fields such as biology, ecology, or medicine. Overall, there are various types of GAs to choose from, each with its own strengths and best uses. The choice of a GA format depends on the main message of the study and its target audience.
The most used type of GAs in medical journals is currently the three-stage format provided by Elsevier. Depending on the type of the study, the three columns provided can be organized as patient, methods, and results, or as first, second, and third findings (Fig. 7). This format can be particularly useful in cohort studies. For randomized controlled trials, GAs in the format of a two-stage flow chart provided by the NEJM are widely used. In contrast, in review articles or experimental papers, there are numerous GAs in a free format, regardless of the templates presented above. In conclusion, the most vital factor in determining the format of a GA is the study design. Therefore, before producing a GA, researchers must refer to GAs of preexisting papers with similar designs to those of their studies.
A GA is typically a single image or an illustration that summarizes the key points of the study in a comprehensible and visually appealing manner. To create a compelling GA, one must follow the key steps presented below.
First, start by identifying the main message of the study. This serves as the focus of the GA, providing further guidance in determining the design and content of the illustration. Although researchers tend to indulge in the desire to include all their findings in their GAs, it is necessary to concentrate on one or two key points on average, with no more than three at most.
Second, choose an appropriate visual style for the GA. This might include using a combination of illustrations, diagrams, and text to convey the main message.
Third, avoid using excessive text or complex illustrations, since a GA should be easy to understand at a glance. It is essential to keep in mind that a GA is not an end in itself but has the purpose of further disseminating the research in social media. In other words, a GA is responsible for grasping the attention of its audience and prompting them to eventually read the full manuscript—in other words, a GA is not the full paper.
Fourth, use colors and other design elements that can engage the audience. This can draw the readers’ attention to the key message of the study. Because some journals, such as Allergy, have predetermined color palettes for GAs, it is recommended to check the instructions in advance.
Fifth, request feedback on the GA from others and make any necessary revisions. This process ensures that the GA effectively communicates the main findings of the study.
There are various programs that can create effective GAs. Microsoft PowerPoint (Microsoft Corp), a widely used program that creates presentations, can also be utilized to create GAs. The program offers a range of tools and features that can create visual representations illustrating complex information, such as charts, diagrams and images. One of the benefits of creating GAs with Microsoft PowerPoint is its universal availability and user-friendly interface. Additionally, Microsoft PowerPoint offers a wide range of templates and design elements that generate professional-level GAs. Another tool available is Mind the Graph (https://mindthegraph.com), a web-based subscription service that allows users to create GAs, infographics, and other types of scientific illustrations. The platform offers a wide range of predesigned templates, visual elements, and features that can make custom, eye-catching GAs efficiently. Other web-based graphic design tools, such as Biorender (https://biorender.com) and Canva (https://www.canva.com), are also available to help researchers in producing GAs.
Finally, although traditional, one of the most effective ways to produce GAs is collaborating with experts. Illustrators are trained professionals who specialize in creating illustrations, which is a valuable asset in creating GAs. One of the benefits of working with illustrators is their specialized skills in creating these visuals, allowing GAs both to be visually appealing and to effectively communicate the key message researchers wish to convey. They can also provide guidance on composition, typography, and color choices that can easily draw the attention of the audience. However, since illustrators in general may have an insufficient understanding of the academic content, it is advised that researchers first create a rough draft of the GA and later collaborate with illustrators by discussing the visuals.
Although GAs have become an essential part of academic journals, they still have some limitations. There is an ongoing debate on the effectiveness of GAs in increasing journal impact or citations. Some critics argue that GAs are not always effective in communicating the main findings of a study. Some GAs are too complex or vague to be understood at a glance, while others may not accurately represent the key findings of the study. Some studies simply are not suited for visual representation, making a GA unnecessary. In addition, there is currently no universal standard for GAs, which can lead to inconsistencies in their formats and contents. Lastly, creating high-quality GAs can be time-consuming and expensive. It requires a good understanding of design principles, as well as access to specialized software and tools.
In the long run, GAs have endless possibilities to overcome those limitations. Regarding the potential future directions for GAs, it should be first noted that GAs are becoming more engaging by incorporating animations, videos, and interactive elements such as hover effects, pop-ups, and links. In fact, video abstracts have recently been increasing in NEJM. Furthermore, given the recent fascination with artificial intelligence and machine learning technology, GAs may be created automatically after the extraction of raw data, allowing a more efficient and accurate communication of research findings. The development of such technology will reduce the burden of drafting GAs, enabling researchers to focus more on their scientific endeavors.
In conclusion, GAs are valuable tools for communicating complex information in a clear and concise manner. They have the ability to make research more accessible and engaging for a wide range of audiences. In today’s era of social media, GAs have become a crucial art that researchers must master—a promising component of academic journals expected to gradually expand, despite some limitations.

Conflict of Interest

Jeong-Ju Yoo is the representative of Research Factory (Incheon, Korea). No other potential conflict of interest relevant to this article was reported.

Funding

This study was supported by the Soonchunhyang University Research Fund.

Acknowledgements
The authors thank Ju Han and Seong-Eun Ju in Research Factory (Incheon, Korea) for illustrating figures.
Fig. 1.
Number of biomedical articles published in PubMed each year.
kcse-293f1.jpg
Fig. 2.
Example of graphical abstract. Reprinted from Choi et al. [8], available under the Creative Commons License.
kcse-293f2.jpg
Fig. 3.
Example of graphical abstract. Reprinted from Hwang et al. [9], available under the Creative Commons License.
kcse-293f3.jpg
Fig. 4.
Conceptual diagram style of graphical abstract.
kcse-293f4.jpg
Fig. 5.
Flowchart style of graphical abstract.
kcse-293f5.jpg
Fig. 6.
Infographic-style of graphical abstract. Reprinted from Kim et al. [14], available under the Creative Commons License.
kcse-293f6.jpg
Fig. 7.
Three-stage form of a graphical abstract.
kcse-293f7.jpg

Figure & Data

References

    Citations

    Citations to this article as recorded by  
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