Scientific figures need attention to detail

The little things matter; for example, a typo. In theory, a typo is a minor mistake that makes no difference to the meaning of the writing. In practice, if you’re like me, your opinion of the quality of the rest of the work decreases. Moreover, you may inadvertently seek out further faults.

The same can be said for figures: poor attention to detail will spoil an otherwise perfectly good plot. For this reason, here’s a short list of easily adjustable details that will improve your figures.

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PowerPoint isn’t a scrapbook

I once attended a scientific talk where someone started off by stating that he had given himself an award, a clip art ribbon, for busiest title slide. Sure he was joking, but I was cringing. Sadly this is just one of far too many examples of slides that I’ve seen that would look more at home in a kid’s scrapbook than a scientific talk.

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Four effortless LaTeX packages you should use

By default, LaTeX produces professional-looking documents. Specifying an extra couple of packages, however, can make your document look even better. Here are four packages I recommend that require no effort, by which I mean you simply add the package to your preamble (and maybe specify a few options) and you’re good to go.

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Design using HSL colour space

When designing any figure with colour, consider the Hue-Saturation-Lightness (HSL) colour space. It is the most intuitive and simplest colour space to work with. For examples of why it is well suited to scientific figures, skip to the bottom. To learn the details, read on.

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LyX: a middle-ground to LaTeX and Word

LyX is a document processor that provides the power and professional-looking typesetting of LaTeX with the familiarity of an easy-to-use graphical interface à la MS Word. Effectively, it provides the best of both worlds. For someone without knowledge of LaTeX, LyX is less imposing and has a smaller learning curve. But even seasoned LaTeX users who have no desire to leave their favourite text editor can take advantage of some of LyX’s features.

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Design for black-and-white printing

Colour figures in journal articles are common these days. Many of the people reading them, however, will print them in black and white. Consequently, when designing figures, we should ensure they remain meaningful if converted to grayscale. Here are a few tips to keep in mind.

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Skip the outline slide; use a sidebar

Outline slides in scientific talks are unnecessary and cut into a speaker’s valuable time. Many scientific talks are 10–12 minutes, and spending a whole slide outlining the next 10 minutes is pointless. Why? Because your talk is very likely going to follow a standard order: You’ll start with some motivation, move onto the background, present your results, then finish up with what you have concluded. This is what the audience is expecting, so don’t need to waste time reiterating. As an audience member, I prefer you use this time to teach me something.

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