It always intrigues me when a figure looks really complicated. And I start to wonder:…
Is a graphical abstract an infographic for scientists? Or a strategic visualization? A schematic illustration? Here is an attempt to shed some light on the conceptual confusion from my point of view.
The graphical abstract as a supplement to a published article
In the narrower sense, a graphical abstract is a visual equivalent to the classic text abstract of a scientific article. Both of these do not replace reading the article, but should give the reader a quick overview. That helps to decide: read on or click on?
Although the way of presentation and the format differ from journal to journal, the basic idea is always the same: to show a main aspect of the scientific article with a (self) explanatory graphic. This makes it easier to promote and share an article, especially on social media. A graphical abstract makes your own science – in the truest sense of the word – more visible.
Graphical Abstract or Visual Abstract?
The short answer: it means the same thing. The term graphical abstract comes from the field of chemistry, and the term visual abstract from the field of medicine. The basic idea is identical and in many areas the terms are used interchangeably. Naturally, the type of representation differs between the disciplines. When presenting the results of clinical studies, it is advisable to present the study design, the main results and the implications that result from the study. Therefore, the medical practitioner’s visual abstract is often structured in three parts. The visual preparation consists of the use of icons to give the viewer context and the setting of the essential statistical figures.
In contrast to this, the graphical abstract of chemists in the field of synthesis usually consists of only a single field and shows a reaction with structural formulas.
In the life sciences, on the other hand, the publications often contain answers to mechanistic or conceptual questions. The resulting graphical abstracts illustrate the examined processes and place the results of the publication in a larger context. Here, a graphical abstract is a conceptual illustration that usually appears as a schematic drawing, but can also take the format of a comic, for example.
Thinking outside the box
Apart from the classic use as an accompaniment to a scientific article, a graphic summary is also an enrichment in other areas of science. For funding applications, for example, graphical abstracts serve as strategic visualizations that explain which issues are to be investigated and how. Network applications can also show how the research groups involved are jointly approaching the issue and where whose expertise lies. Since the idea of the graphical abstract is useful for many other formats in which science is communicated, I am not limiting the definition of a graphical abstract to scientific articles. For me, a graphical abstract is anything that is a visual summary of a scientific finding or idea. Regardless of the intended use.
Definition: A graphical abstract is a visual summary of a scientific project or idea.
Differences and similarities
It’s not a data visualization. A graphical abstract is not a string of data visualizations such as bar charts, scatter plots, etc. It contains little or no primary data, instead the concept and the broader context are placed in the foreground. Therefore it is not a good idea to redefine the most beautiful plot or the most beautiful coloring as a graphical abstract. These individual aspects are neither self-explanatory nor do they convey context. That doesn’t do justice to the format and the added value for the reader is zero.
A graphical abstract can be viewed as a form of knowledge visualization or information visualization. The purpose is to convey knowledge to the viewer in a compact and clear manner. To accomplish this purpose, good design is supportive. Therefore, the order is: first the message, then the design. This is where the approach differs from many infographics, which often focus on an appealing design and subordinate the data to the design. The latter often results in the actual statements being displayed in a distorted manner or being unnecessarily difficult to recognize.
My graphical abstracts are a piece of visual science communication. Science is always the priority and the aim is to convey the scientific statements as simply as possible. The design supports the statements and offers the reader orientation. Therefore, my design is straightforward. I deliberately refrain from using graphic effects without added value in terms of content, such as shadows, color gradients and 3D views.