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Picture this: a stimulating way of opening up your research to new audiences

April 19, 2021 | 5 min read

By Christopher Tancock

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How visual abstracts can help you get noticed

As with many things in life, the process of submitting and publishing an article can seem like climbing a multi-levelled hill (or mountain in some cases!). Producing a draft gets you to one level; navigating the submission process is another uphill slog. Climbing and conquering the heights of peer review, revision and finally, with luck, acceptance requires a host of patience and a mastery of different techniques. You might think this would be the end of the journey, but having your article accepted is in many ways just another beginning. Look around you – there are quite a few other authors standing around at this level – all hoping their article gets noticed by a broad audience. So to reach that final level and truly bask in the warm sunlight of success, there’s one more step to take: we need to paint a picture.

A great way to stand out and ensure your work reaches the broadest audience is to make your work as accessible as possible and in an age where everyone’s time is precious (and scarce), it’s useful to remember that old adage: “a picture is worth a thousand words”. Enter the visual/graphical abstract (VGA)*.

The visual abstract was originally the brainchild of Professor Andrew Ibrahim(opens in new tab/window), the Creative Director of Annals of Surgery. From occasional appearances in a single journal, VGAs have now become much more common and you’ll find many journals now mandating their submission alongside the main body of the article. At Elsevier alone, we saw over 130,000 graphical abstracts published in 2020, a 33% increase on the number in 2019. Around 1,400 of our journals have published at least one VGA in the last year. But what is a visual abstract?

A visual abstract is a single, concise, pictorial and visual summary of the main findings of the article. A VGA allows readers to quickly gain an understanding of the take-home message of the paper and is intended to encourage browsing, promote interdisciplinary scholarship, and help readers identify more quickly which papers are most relevant to their research interests.

There are various ways to approach constructing a graphical abstract (and note that many journals have their own guidelines and even templates for doing so). Elsevier’s Author Hub has a page dedicated to VGAs (along with instructions, best practices and examples of good VGAs). There are also some excellent resources elsewhere including Professor Ibrahim’s fantastic Primer(opens in new tab/window), now in its fourth edition.

Regardless of the specifics, a VGA is usually divided into sections and the whole piece should tell a story, encouraging the viewer to want to read the full article. Here are our top tips for drawing up your abstract:

  • Think about the purpose/audience for your abstract.

  • Use detail sparingly without oversimplifying or misrepresenting.

  • Remember to include a citation back to the article – perhaps as a QR code in addition to the DOI/URL.

  • Don’t clutter the abstract: white space is your friend here!

  • Make good use of design and infographical elements e.g. icons and pictograms.

  • Be creative when designing your VGA and bear these key descriptors in mind: “simplify”, “illustrate”, “explain”, “entice”.

Examples of visual/graphical abstracts

Naturally such a construct lends itself superbly to dissemination on social media as well as use in online “journal club” discussions, in blog posts, at conferences and in presentations. You could even get a smaller version printed out to disseminate at events and meetings. If you invest some time, you can use VGAs to help make a splash with your article, often with impressive results. Research has shown that graphical abstracts impact positively on their articles both in terms of views of the article as well as increased activity on social media. In particular, the average annual use of an article is doubled when compared with those without a visual abstract(opens in new tab/window).

If you know that your research might be of interest to different audiences (say, fellow researchers and the general public), it could be a wise idea to construct a different VGA for each audience. You can further increase the accessibility of your work by combining the graphical abstract with a lay summary. (This wouldn’t be necessary for every article but key research you want to open up should have its own “campaign”, designed to encourage your peers to read the full article whilst also educating the general public about what you’ve done.)

In summary, visual/graphical abstracts are a fantastic device to showcase the essential thrust of your research and, used properly, can help break down barriers and open your work up to new audiences as well as ensuring more usage. It’s important to employ a visual abstract as part of a wider strategy to promote your work including use of good keywords, social media promotion, use of Share Links and similar tools, and the preparation of a lay summary. What VGAs are not is a substitute for reading the (whole) article – view them more as a gateway to said work.

Given the rapid expansion of submitted and published graphical abstracts at Elsevier alone, it’s reasonable to conclude that they will play a significant and growing part in the academic publication process. Questions have been raised about whether VGAs should be formalized and integrated into the peer review process to ensure quality. We’ll continue to monitor trends, offer advice and help you to get the most out of your work. In the meantime we’ll leave you with this offering: “a picture is worth 1,000 words; a good picture 10,000!”.

* The terms  visual- and graphical abstract are used interchangeably in this piece reflecting a widespread use of both alternatives in the community.  We are currently considering which terminology to employ going forward. Have an opinion on this?  Let us know via the short poll below!

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