Graphical Abstracts: An Introduction

A graphical abstract is an illustration that pictorially represents the most important results of your scientific publication.

Graphical abstracts aren’t universally required by journals yet, but with Elsevier Publishing leading the charge, they could become a regular requirement of scientific publishing. More and more journals are requiring or accepting graphical abstracts. I’ll be creating a resource page with a list of those journals/publishers that require or request graphical abstracts soon and will link to it here.

Graphical abstract created in by Cheryl McCutchan in Adobe Illustrator

Graphical abstract created in by Cheryl McCutchan in Adobe Illustrator

Graphical abstracts are a quick way to understand the main findings of a journal article.

A graphical abstract visually summarizes the main finding of research presented in a paper. It should consist mainly of illustrations with minimal text. Most journals want a synthesis of the information in the article rather than a graph or illustration taken directly from the article. There are some exceptions to this guideline, particularly if you visually summarize a process within the text of your paper.

I made the graphical abstract above for Plantae.org (the online community of the American Society of Plant Biologists). In the first panel on the left, I’ve presented a piece of background information to help orient the viewer. The middle panel shows a summary of the results from the study. The last panel on the right explains the authors conclusions. Because this illustration was made for a specific purpose and had no caption, it has more text than is usually found in a graphical abstract.

You should be able to quickly scan this graphical abstract and get a general idea of what you’ll find in the paper. If you don’t want to dig deeper into the paper, the graphical abstract allows you to quickly understand its main findings.

For more examples, check out this article on Elsevier’s site and this article on the Cell Press site. The Cell Press site has some nice before and after examples of graphical abstracts.

Graphical abstracts are very sharable and can be repurposed for other uses.

Graphical abstracts are easy to visually scan and often appear first within a paper, even before the verbal abstract. They provide a quick way for a potential reader to grasp what the paper is about, its main conclusions, and if they would like to dig deeper.

Graphical abstracts also have the advantage of being very sharable. They are perfect for including on your research website and are easily shared on social media. Graphical abstracts are an excellent way to get more eyeballs on your journal articles, potentially leading to more citations of the article. They can also be used to summarize data presented in professional talks. In addition, you can repurpose the visual elements in your graphical abstract, using pieces for posters and lectures.

Have you had to create a graphical abstract for a paper? What was your experience when you created your graphical abstract?