Do The Art, Man!

I’m a big fan of the visual abstracts that many journals have introduced recently (even if they do make scrolling through TOCs in Google Reader like wading through treacle at times); I’m a very visual person, and I find it much easier to look at diagrams of signalling cascades than to read about Protein Blah activating Protein Meh, which activates Protein Whatever, which phosphorylates Protein Who Cares.

I haven’t seen any summary cartoons that include sharks and crabs yet, but I did enjoy this one, from today’s Current Biology:

Cowabunga, dude!


HAPPY NEW YEAR to all my lovely readers! I hope you have an excellent night, and a fantastic 2011. 2010 will be hard to top for me, but I’m very optimistic about Good Times ahead!

About Cath@VWXYNot?

"one of the sillier science bloggers [...] I thought I should give a warning to the more staid members of the community." - Bob O'Hara, December 2010
This entry was posted in art, original research, publishing, science, silliness. Bookmark the permalink.

24 Responses to Do The Art, Man!

  1. cromercrox says:

    The visual abstract – brilliant idea. I have no idea if my colleagues at your favourite weekly professional journal of science beginning with N have ever thought of it, but it would certainly help me to appreciate the kind of signalling cascade you mention, in which protein Meh double negatively interacts with protein Pah when co-repressed with protein Blah which is dephosphorylated by protein Whateva and co-activates protein Gaga which then mediates the release of calcium from intracellular stores (matinee on Wednesday).

  2. You’re allowed to do that? I am so doing this for my next abstract… Inkscape is my bff!

  3. Liz says:

    Happy new year Cath! I haven’t been keeping up with blog reading too much recently but yours is on the list to follow in 2011

    I like these visuals too. I don’t even consider myself to be a visual person but I do find they make abstract browsing more entertaining. (Only one of my favourite journals has started to use these, I’m curious if more will follow suit)

    All the best for 2011

  4. ricardipus says:

    I like this idea too, but I see endless potential for the same kinds of eye-blistering visual abuse which now permeates all but a very small percentage of PowerPoint presentations…

    …now, off to deploy a blog post with no fewer than four (4) photographs in it!

    Oh, and Happy New Year to you, too. 🙂

  5. Alyssa says:

    Happy new year to you too, Cath!!

  6. Steve Caplan says:

    I think there is lot to be learned from the idea of “visual abstracts”. I hope, though, that it will still be recognized that the vast majority of complex scientific topics will not readily be broken down into the tiny-sized bits/bytes/flashes etc. to which modern society is rapidly becoming accustomed. Not everything can be “spoon-fed” and learning is often most effective when one sits down to draw out his/her own graphics when reading an abstract or paper. In fact, the whole issue of lecturers giving out “handouts” so students are absolved of having to transcribe any parts of a lecture is still beyond my comprehension. But I’m getting off on a tangent…

  7. Stephen says:

    I agree with what I think Steve is saying above – that such images can be something of a mixed blessing. Great if the essential message can be encapsulated or rendered visually (especially true of signalling pathways, which i generally find numbingly dull). But pictures have great power and there is an ever-present risk of mis-representing something by over-simplification. Often the image will remain in the mind and over-write the recollection of any of the words, which may contain essential caveats.

  8. GMP says:

    Happy New Year, Cath!
    Let me add onto what people above already said.
    Visual abstracts are beautiful, and they undoubtedly illustrate the paper and have the potential to attract you to download it, but I fear they are not universally able to capture the jist of the paper (this is often true in my field). But maybe making the paper more attractive and downloaded is enough?

  9. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    HA! I <3 blogging. You post a silly "LOL, this diagram looks like Bart Simpson" piece of nonsense, and a serious debate breaks out in the comments! Awesome.

    Henry, I think it started with the various flavours of Cell, at least out of the journals to which I subscribe, and it’s spread to several others. I’m not sure if it would work as well for every field (although cartoon dinosaurs and exploding black holes in my RSS feed would be pretty cool), but I definitely like it for molecular biology and related fields!

    Anthony, it depends on the journal! Would the ability to include a visual abstract influence your choice of journal?

    Happy New Year, Liz!

    I only read a tiny fraction of the abstracts that show up in my RSS feeds (I skim based on the title), so these cartoons definitely catch the eye and I get to learn a wee bit more about what’s going on in the literature!

    Ricardipus, happy New Year!

    I hadn’t thought of the crappy PowerPoint slide angle! Clearly some scientists are better at illustrations than others… although I’d imagine the editors / professional graphic artists have some kind of input into the visual abstracts?

    Happy New Year, Alyssa!

    Steve, I agree that these little cartoons aren’t good enough for in-depth learning – but they do make skimming TOCs much easier!

    I also learn new concepts best when trying to sketch them out myself from memory. All part of being a visual person I guess!

    Stephen, more good points – and I think it could definitely be field-dependent. Mind you my whole “visual person” thing breaks down when I try to look at 3D protein structures – I just can’t “see” them properly on the printed page (or on PowerPoint slides). Maybe journals in your field should give out 3D glasses to their readers for their visual abstracts? 🙂

    Happy New Year, GMP! Nice to see you over here.

    Yes, it might all be about a “hook” – making the paper stand out from the flood of other abstracts, and exposing the work to more people?

  10. cromercrox says:

    Yes, Cath, I agree that some fields lend themselves more to visual abstracts than others … and these might be the fields that are otherwise not overly endowed with objects or scenery, other than watching people shift small quantities of colorless liquid from one place to the other. Papers about signalling pathways are ideal. Picking up on some of the other comments – it might take a while for visual abstracts to become standardized, in the sense that we’ll see a common approach to illustrating certain concepts. However, once this is achieved, visual abstracts could become very powerful conceptual tools – rather as Feynman Diagrams were in particle physics.

  11. ricardipus says:

    Cath – I can imagine editors/journal layout types choosing images from papers to use in visual abstracts, yes – but I honestly can’t imagine any scientific journal dedicating the resources to actually developing nice-looking graphical elements themselves. As it is, journals require the authors to draw figures (and convert them to the correct delivery format), or provide cover illustrations. Perhaps Henry can comment, but the only “journal” I can think of that might be able to draw nice figures for an abstract would be Scientific American, or a similar “popular magazine” like Discover.

    P.S. Speaking of visual elements, this is the third OT comment in a row I’ve posted that used exactly the same CAPTCHA code.

  12. Yes, I’ve noticed the Captcha code thing too. One for the list!

  13. bean-mom says:

    There is the opposite of the nice clear visual model which simplifies and encapsulates the gist of a paper. And that is the horrific nightmare of a graphic with way too many parts, arrows going every which way, which is actually more complicated and confusing than the text itself. This type of figure (supposedly a “summary model”) seems to have dominated the last dozen review articles I’ve read. (I’ve been reading lots of reviews because I’m trying to write a review myself. I would like to say here that MY figures for my review are staggeringly clear and beautiful).

    But oh how I wish I had access to a professional graphic designer (I hear some research institutes do actually have them on staff!)

  14. cromercrox says:

    I can confirm that your favourite weekly professional science magazine beginning with N has a team of artists and designers who can do lovely things with graphics.

    • ricardipus says:

      Sorry, I’m a bit late responding – Henry, do you think that the team of artists and designers have the time to devote to visual abstracts? That was sort of my point, that most (all?) scientific journals wouldn’t have the resources (time, basically) even if they had the expertise, whereas popular mags like Scientific American generate their own figures routinely.

      Which is why, of course, an issue of SciAm is so much more expensive than an issue of, say, Nature.

      *runs like the wind

      • Frank says:

        Richard – ouch! You do know of course that Sci. Am. is published by Macmillan, same group that NPG belongs to? And that last year the NPG site licence team took over the institutional pricing and sales of Scientific American? So the prices went up quite dramatically?

        I think Nature is still more expensive than Sci Am, but they are closer than they used to be. And of coursse excellent value (just in case anyone from NPG is reading!)

  15. Frank says:

    Interesting. I think one absolutely clear-cut area where graphical abstracts are useful is chemistry. See, for example, the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Organic & Biomolecular Chemistry. To a chemist, structure diagrams and reaction pathways are more useful than any mere words.

    My favourite example from pre-online days was the Journal of Heterocyclic Chemistry. The front cover of each issue showed icons of all the different heterocycles that were dealt with in the issue, so a quick scan for your favourite systems would quickly tell you whether or not you needed to open it up and read further.

  16. Bean-Mom, I had some interesting experiences working with graphic artists in my marketing job! It was lots of fun, but also very frustrating when I had to constantly explain to one of them that it didn’t matter if one kind of cell fit the design better than another one, because we were selling to scientists, not designers, and if we put the wrong kind of cell in the graphic, they’d think we were idiots!

    Good luck with your review!

    Henry, any idea if any of them have a science background? (see above – it would have been much easier if this person had at least taken an introductory biology course!) A couple of years ago my parents’ neighbours’ oldest daughter was being dissuaded by everyone else from taking biology and art A Levels because it “wasn’t a good mix”, but I kept telling her (and her parents!) that it’s actually a really good combination, with plenty of good job opportunities! She ended up doing both, and found that each subject helped her with the other. Everyone except me was astonished at this.

    Frank, excellent point! I don’t read any chemistry journals – any idea if any of them have adopted visual abstracts?

    (Maybe they could start adding video abstracts. I hadan old-school chemistry teacher who believed that setting off explosions in the classroom was the key to explaining new concepts).

    • Frank says:

      Cath – yes, that RSC journal includes structures. Nature Chemistry also has some nice images.

      Explosions are great. I’m sure they have attracted huge numbers of students to chemistry.

  17. chall says:

    Happy New years Cath! I’m slowly working through posts after my holidays and no internet 😉

    Hope 2011 is a great year again!! If nothing else, all your travels last year made me realise that I need to get out more on the weekends! Small vacations FTW 😀

  18. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Thanks, Frank!

    Happy New Year, Chall! Welcome home, where they have internets 🙂

    Weekends and other short trips are awesome. I’ll be using up most of my vacation days on a trip back to England in May, so I won’t have time for anything else this year!

  19. Stuart says:

    Chemistry journals have been publishing graphical abstracts/TOC images for many (many) years now. At Nature Chemistry we have the authors provide an image prepared along certain guidelines and then we sometimes intervene to make them look better. Some chemistry journals are notorious for publishing slightly dodgy and/or laughable TOC images – and for a nice round up of these, please allow me to introduce you to TOC ROFL (…

  20. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    That Tumblr site is BRILLIANT!!! Thanks, Stuart!

  21. Cath@VWXYNot? says:

    Putting this here so I can find it next time I’m looking for it:

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