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Figuring it out: Trends for visuals in academic writing

Comic Strip Frame with text "Write, write, write! Will anyone read all these words?"Online exchanges are increasingly visual. Even staid newspaper sites now embed media or graphic stories. Almost every mobile device includes a camera, and the means to quickly upload and share still images or media. Graphics and drawing software are readily available. What do these trends mean for academic writing? What kinds of figures or other visual materials are scholars using to communicate about their research? How are electronic journals changing the options for the use of media and images? With these questions in mind, I explored trends and looked examples of visuals in academic writing that extend beyond the typical black and white figure.

Animated images

In a 2014 presentation to the ACM CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, Kazi et al discussed the use of sketching program DRACO to add animated effects to figures (Kazi, Chevalier, Grossman, Zhao, & Fitzmaurice, 2014). In a subsequent paper, the authors described in detail ways to develop and embed animated GIFs in PDF files to enlighten electronic scholarly journals (Grossman, Chevalier, & Kazi, 2015). We are starting to see journals that welcome such contributions.

The American Astronomical Society announced in 2017 a change in the publication process:

Movies are no longer supplemental material, but are now “animated figures” in the final article. Animated figures are presented in an embedded streaming window, so it is no longer necessary to download the video or open a separate window to view it.

Graphics, comics and cartoons

Embedding video, or animations is one option for enlivening academic articles. However, if the journal does not accommodate this option, you can create visual abstracts that are used to promote a more traditional text-based article.

Comic strip visual example

Cartoon abstracts were introduced in 2015 by journal publishers Taylor & Francis. They reported that:

[C]artoon abstracts have generated over 12,000 extra downloads for articles published in journals which range across the sciences, technology, and maths. With the authors represented through characters in the cartoon strip, they’re also a useful networking tool among peers.

See cartoon abstract examples from Taylor & Francis journals here.

Infographics and other graphical abstracts can present essentials of the study in an understandable way. See a collection of examples from Animate Your Science, a company that works with art-challenged writers who want to present their ideas visually.


Most academic journals began as formal print publications, and today most are moving online. Some continue with their conventional text-based approach and black-and-white figures. Others are using the transition to electronic publication to update their mode of delivery. But new journals that are debuting now can take a fresh look at what it means to disseminate research.

One born-digital example is the Discoveries journal published by the Academy of Management. In this interview, associate editor Curtis LeBaron describes the choices Discoveries makes and the scientific purpose they hope to achieve by using videos and digital whiteboards to complement written articles. Find an entire library of examples here. With the success of Discoveries, the Academy of Management has moved all of its journals into “dynamic editions” that allow for audio/video, bookmarking, and social sharing capabilities. Note that while these journals are available to members and through academic libraries, they are not open access. However, the media associated with published articles is freely available online.

Change is slow!

A brief look at guidelines for major publishers of academic journals shows that most are still, asking writers to just write. Most still have the same old expectations for black and white figures or photographs. Hopefully, we will see more publications take advantage of the approaches shared in the examples for this post. New opportunities to present research in ways that will engage readers both within and outside of academia can extend the value of our work and increase impact.


Grossman, T., Chevalier, F., & Kazi, R. H. (2015). Your paper is dead!: Bringing life to research articles with animated figures.Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 33rd Annual ACM Conference Extended Abstracts on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Kazi, R. H., Chevalier, F., Grossman, T., Zhao, S., & Fitzmaurice, G. (2014). Draco: bringing life to illustrations with kinetic textures.Paper presented at the Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems.

Janet SalmonsJanet Salmons is an independent scholar and writer through Vision2Lead. She is the Methods Guru for SAGE Publications blog community, Methodspace, and the author of six textbooks. Current books are the forthcoming Learning to Collaborate, Collaborating to Learn from Stylus, and Doing Qualitative Research Online (2016) from SAGE.