Bad, bad Science Figures…

Having attended the talk by George Musser, a former editor for Scientific American in New York, I realized how wrong sometimes a scientific figure can be and how bad influence it could bring to the whole research work. After all, the only purpose of using a science figure is to give a clear representation of the complex concepts and results in research papers, but not to make them more confusing. In order to remind people (including myself) to avoid using such figures, I have listed down some of the bad examples I found online here:


1. Simple, not sophisticated


These scientists were trying to map metabolites, but instead they made a London subway map! It is significant that a science figure to be clear, and more importantly, simple.



A similar example can be found here:


Figure 1. Comparison of predicted protein networks for E. coli. (a) Protein pairs and their mutual information scores based on phylogenetic profiling were used to generate a network for E. coli. Figure generated using data from [4, supplementary information] (b) Protein interactions were predicted using Bioverse [7] based on finding pairs of proteins similar in sequence to proteins from a database of experimentally determined interactions. Figure generated using data from Bioverse ( For both networks, nodes representing proteins are colored based on their gene ontology (GO) [19] category and the 220 proteins present in both networks are outlined in blue. Edges represent the predicted relationships between proteins [functional linkages in (a) and protein interactions in (b)] and are colored by confidence (a) or mutual information score (b).


Even the author himself reflected on this as a “rainbow-colored Death Star exploding”. It is understandable that researchers always want to present as much results as possible in a figure, but sometimes being too enthusiastic is not very helpful – it’s better to cool down and sort out the direct message you want to pass. Throwing everything to the audience will only make them go away.


2. For the sake of being professional


Researchers should not make an excuse for themselves like “Oh I am only a scientist, I don’t know what is Photoshop”, or “the results are important, no matter how I present them”. Wrong! Whether people will view you as a professional in academic research, or in fact, in any fields of working, depend 90% on first impression.


Moreover, reports show that up to 75% of our brain cells process information through visualizing system, that is to say, pictures and figures are usually the first to reach your audience. Therefore, no offense to the authors but a scientific figure like below will only make people think, “is that a publication from kinder-gardeners?”


Come on scientists, you spend days and nights in laboratory to get the most perfect data, but cannot spare just 1-2 hours for a workshop of graphic design? We said simple, but not childish. Don’t let a unprofessional figure ruin the whole academic publication.

Overexpression of Hydroxynitrile Lyase in Cassava Roots Elevates Protein and Free Amino Acids while Reducing Residual Cyanogen Levels


3. Use a useful figure


A science publication has to have figures, but only useful ones. A paper discovering glass transitions in polymer thin films presented a figure with almost parallel lines. In a situation like this, can we just write in one line “the probability distributions are the same”? Or, if there is something that the authors want to highlight, maybe he or she can depict the data in another form rather than dotted lines. At least people can tell your points from reading your figure.




Have you encountered bad scientific figures before? Or probably you are about to put one or two in your next publication. Please avoid the falls above, and feel free to share in the comments about your experience and thoughts.


-Alice Yu Yuebo








One thought on “Bad, bad Science Figures…

  1. zhihan says:

    Yes indeed figures are the most important part of the article! A beautiful figure is worth a thousand beautiful words. Similarly, a horrible figure is worth a thousand horrible words!
    The figure of the “rainbow-colored Death Star exploding” is actually quite nice lei i think. It shows the complexity of the system. I’m quite sure the author did try to demystify it later? At least the author is humorous in the death star analogy…


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