A vision of increased citations

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Fabricio Pamplona

Fabricio Pamplona explores the advantages of publishing visual abstracts alongside research papers

It’s estimated that each year, between two to three million scientific papers are published. While social media can lend a hand in communicating the results from the latest research studies, it’s impossible to keep up with the full body of academic literature.  In practice, only a small number of published papers are read, cited and acted upon.

According to the 2018 STM Report, there are around 33,100 active scholarly peer reviewed English language journals. Both the number of journals, and the number of articles published, has risen slowly over the last two centuries to around three million articles per year.

Research published in The Economist found that the average paper receives just 1.64 citations.  When you consider that research can cost tens or even hundreds of thousands of Euros and take a team of people many months or years to complete, receiving less than two citations once the research is published seems a miniscule figure.

Inspiring with visual abstracts      

So, what can researchers do to improve the dissemination of their research? One approach is including graphs, figures and images. According to a famous study in The Economist, having a visual element in a paper impacts the number of citations received. The study found that the inclusion of a graph increased citations by 60%, and the inclusion of an infographic increased citations by 120%.

Building on this, many journals now offer the option to include a visual abstract alongside a written paper. Often a single image, these help readers gain an overview of a research article in just a few minutes and usually contain the overall idea of experimental design, hypothesis and an indication of results.

According to Elsevier: “A graphical abstract should allow 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.” Journals that include this alongside a paper often find the average annual use of the article double compared with papers without a visual abstract.

Some journals that use visual abstracts share them in the Table of Contents to allow the user to screen through the information visually, even before opening the actual paper. For example, JMIR publications add the visual abstract to the Table of Contents as well as embed it into the paper. The visual abstract can be also used as a support element for the abstract to foster interest in the deep learning of the whole article.

Visual abstracts on social media

All major journals have an online presence to some extent, with many using social media to actively promote new research. Social media is a great way to draw attention to the latest studies, by pulling out some of the key findings to attract viewers to read the full text.

In fact, research has shown a positive correlation between exposure to social media and article citations. For example, a recent study by The Transplantation Journal, demonstrated that a paper shared on Twitter may have up to three times as many views as one that is not.

Journals who publish visual abstracts alongside manuscripts, can  share these graphics on social media to gain direct traffic back to the full report. A 2017 study published in the Annals of Surgery found that tweets about the same papers received a 7.7-fold increase in average impressions, and an 8.4-fold increase in retweets when they contained a visual abstract.

Visual abstracts can also be found by academics looking for research via Google images. For example, a 2016 paper published in Science, titled “Zika virus impairs growth in human neurospheres and brain organoids”, which includes a graphical abstract, appears on page one of a Google Images search for “Zika virus brain organoids”, increasing the chance that the paper will be found.

Creating visual abstracts

There are three main styles of visual abstract: diagram style (often used when molecular structures are involved), infographic style (preferred when you have images with high visual impact that need to be incorporated with text), and comic type (useful for communicating in magazines). The Cell Press Graphical Abstract Guidelines include examples of different styles of visual abstracts and gives insight into how to improve them.

When offering the opportunity to submit a visual abstract alongside a paper, most journals will have specific guidelines on how the visual should look. This could include which font, colours and styles are appropriate for the publication. Researchers should follow individual guidelines for the best chances off publication success.

However, it can be a challenge to create an accurate, visually appealing graphic, especially when the subject matter is highly complex. Using a tool that offers online visual abstract templates can make the process much more straightforward.

As the body of published science grows ever larger, visual abstracts are one way to make research stand out from the crowd.  With graphical abstracts, researchers can better illustrate their points, and make a lasting impact on their readers.

Fabricio Pamplona is founder of online infographic maker Mind The Graph