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After yesterday’s post on abstracts, a colleague asked what I thought of “graphical abstracts“.  I’m sure we’ve all seen them – a single image that supposedly captures the essence of the paper that seems to be pushed by Elsevier, among other publishers.

Please. Don’t. Do. It.

I’m all for “TOC art” (the journal “Ecology and Evolution” tends to have a photograph accompany each article), but when it comes to graphical design, scientists leave much to be desired

organometallic bad toc art

Actual TOC art for an article in the ACS journal “Organometallics”. Click the image to read the actual paper.

First of all, it’s embarrassing.  Journal articles are, for better or worse, a significant part of how academics are judged by their peers.  Including a kitschy graphical abstract does nothing else but highlight the authors inadequacies in graphical design.  Which is not surprising since most scientists aren’t designers.

And, like it or not, aesthetics plays a major role in how journals themselves are seen.  If you read a bunch of journal articles, you’ll find that after a while, you can figure out which journal an article is published in just from the layout (typeface, kerning, organization, and general layout).  And whether we recognize it or not, we have a subconscious reaction to this design. It’s akin to consumers’ perceptions of a given brand because, let’s face it, journals are brands.  And when a brand “looks ugly”, I think that, at least subconsciously, our perceptions of the content.

More and more ecologists are becoming decent amateur photographers, especially since the price of high-resolution digital single-lens reflex cameras has dropped considerably, and the cost of taking many photographs is essentially zero (except computer storage space).  This has resulted in more scientist-produced images being used as journal covers or TOC art, and is generally a good thing.  The images are of high quality, and meet certain criteria.

Until more scientists learn to use Adobe Illustrator or understand the principles of graphic design, for the love of Darwin, leave the graphics to the graphics experts.

Should I include TOC art? Let's think about it for a minute. [click to link to the article]

Should I include TOC art? Let’s think about it for a minute. [click to link to the article]