Ugly scientific figures: Are scientists lazy, indifferent, or oblivious?

Too many scientific figures are ugly. I see three possible reasons:

  1. Laziness: scientists could make nice figures, but don’t put in the effort
  2. Obliviousness: scientists are unaware their figures are ugly
  3. Indifference: scientists care only about the data, but not their presentation

Take the following published scientific figure (suitably disguised):

Let’s list the problems: (1) Space is poorly used and data are cramped. (2) Text is bold for no reason. (3) Multiple fonts are used. (4) Tick marks are barely visible. (5) Some labels don’t fit in their respective boxes. (6) Axis values are unnecessarily repeated. (7) Dashed and dash-dotted lines are ugly. (8) Mathematical symbols are not italicised.

All of these problems are easily fixed:

Too lazy for good design

Although the figure’s problems are easily fixed, they still require manual intervention and extra effort. Hence, my first suggestion above for ugly figures being that it’s a case of laziness.

Within laziness, I’m including an unwillingness to learn the correct software tools to use and to override bad defaults. For example, the ugly line styles in the original figure are primarily MatLab’s fault. But there are workarounds or Inkscape to fix them. Further, to remove the redundant labels and make better use of the space requires some manual code additions to fine tune the figure. But these should be quick and straightforward.

Could it be easier to make a nice figure? Sure. Is the extra effort required an excuse for ugly figures? No. That excuse stopped being reasonable at least 10 years ago with the proliferation of scientific software and ease of finding answers online.

A possible argument in favour of being lazy is that the extra time and effort could be better spent elsewhere. Making a figure pretty at the expense of its content would be a problem. Except, I think we’re a long way off from this being a problem worth worrying about.

Oblivious to good design

Being oblivious may be the most legitimate excuse for ugly figures since scientists are seldom taught anything about graphic design. And obliviousness to good design would explain the overabundance of, say, pink stars that I see in scientific figures.

If you are unsure if you’re oblivious, here’s a few dos and don’ts:

Simple shapes with deliberately chosen colours make for a cleaner, more elegant, and more consistent set of markers.
Rounded corners are like pink stars. Avoid them unless you have a good reason. And if you do need boxes to offset a legend or a sidebar, then try a light fill rather than an unsightly outline.
A good-looking arrowhead angles off at ±15° from its tail and has a maximum width about 4× the line thickness. I don’t expect you to remember that, but you should be able to recognise arrowheads that are too big, too thick, or too blunt.
Text shouldn’t be too big or too small relative to the rest of the figure. Most plotting software can figure this out for you, but don’t blindly trust its default choice. And make sure you specify the size of the final figure as well.
Like arrows and font sizes, errorbars and markers have an optimal size.
Good line styles both look better and show the data better.

Indifferent to good design

You might ask who cares what an arrow looks like? As long as it points to the right thing. Or, who cares what markers are used? as long as they’re distinguishable.

With similar logic, I could argue (as I’ve done before) that spelling doesn’t matter. Finaly, untill, recieve, preceed, immitate, and aquire are all misspelt, yet you know exactly what I mean.

I’m still unsure what causes ugly figures

This post is all speculation. My hope was that putting words on a screen would lead to some kind of revelation that answered my titular question about the underlying cause of ugly scientific figures. That has not been the case.

Part of the problem is that scientific figure design is rarely discussed. Consider scientific writing and talks by comparison. These engender all sorts of strong opinions. For writing, scientists will happily argue over how much jargon to use, the level of methodological detail to give, and why active voice is better than passive. As for talks: whether to read off your slides or not, whether to use humour, how to dress, how much text to include, and what body language to use.

Where are the same strong opinions about scientific figures?

Author: Ken Hughes

Post-doctoral research scientist in physical oceanography

One thought on “Ugly scientific figures: Are scientists lazy, indifferent, or oblivious?”

  1. I just spent too much time reading your posts. The nice figures and improvements I should bring into my papers sucked me in. Thanks all the work you put into this blog!

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