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Cartoon abstracts are a very effective way to bring research to life, writes Daniel Pullin

Researchers will often tell you that the most challenging part of publishing their work is coming up with an article abstract.

Having to summarise a potentially complex research paper in less than 300 words, and tempt readers to delve into the full article, can be a daunting challenge.

That’s why we came up with Cartoon Abstracts. Designed to give a visual overview of a research paper, these illustrated comic strips offer a light-hearted summary of what readers can expect to find in an article. Readers no longer have to grapple with just text alone; they now have a visual aid to guide them through challenging concepts.

Showcasing the explanatory capacity of imagery, Cartoon Abstracts have had a considerable impact. Last year, they received an award for Innovation in Publishing from the Association of Learned & Professional Society Publishers. The featured articles have generated more than 200,000 downloads between them. So what lies behind their success? How did the concept come about?

The concept

It all started back in 2014. Marketers outside of publishing were becoming noticeably more creative in their efforts to win the attention of their customers, a trend marked by greater use of visuals in many of their campaigns. Images were taking centre stage in ‘content marketing’ in the digital era. Infographics became a key method of storytelling.

For us, this visual shift was an exciting opportunity. For an industry founded on words, where pictures had traditionally been a peripheral feature, there was surely untapped potential in imagery. We already communicated research to wider audiences through our press releases, so storytelling was nothing new. Through our efforts to combine the storytelling of written press releases with the visual power of infographics, Cartoon Abstracts were born.

Fast-forward three years, and we now have an established formula in place for producing abstracts. From identifying potential articles – we look for those which are topical, or with a quirky hook that will translate well into a cartoon – to briefing an illustrator with a storyboard, the process is the mark of several creative minds fusing together. We work together to make sure that the final product achieves its goal of engaging audiences, both academic and non-academic alike, in a range of research outputs.

In the process, we draw in a level of attention the articles would otherwise miss out on.

Gaining prominence

Take our article on foot strike pattern in athletes (pictured above). Before it was given a comic makeover, the piece had attracted 75 downloads. Now, the figure is approaching 1,000 – a growth of almost 1,200 per cent. Simply turning a 300-word written abstract into a one-page comic strip had breathed new life into the research. In a matter of minutes, readers could easily grasp the purpose of the study, how it was arranged, and what it found; that the athlete being analysed had an atypical foot strike pattern.

Giving it a more concise title – ‘Analysing the Foot Strike Pattern of a World Class Athlete’ – and personifying the findings using a cartoon runner – created a striking illustration. As co-author Marlene Giandolini acknowledges, a one-page graphic is ‘a simple way to communicate a paper’. More enticing and easier to read than a written abstract, it makes it more likely that the article will be widely read. And the more an article is read, the greater the chances of it being shared on social media and featuring in news outlets, reaching a much broader audience.

This view is supported by the evidence. Using the Altmetric Attention Score, which measures the attention articles receive in the media, we have seen an upsurge in mentions of abstract-featured articles. On social media, Cartoon Abstracts have generated a level of conversation and debate that may never have taken place with only written abstracts. A search for ‘Cartoon Abstracts’ on Twitter uncovers the buzz they’ve generated among users; one technology company with more than 21,000 followers expressed its excitement for Cartoon Abstracts in a tweet, sharing the concept with huge numbers of people.
Making an impact

In a digitally-driven era, where newsfeeds are ruthlessly scrolled for entertaining, emotive content, the power of images in grabbing the user’s attention is hard to ignore. As long-term abstracts illustrator Patrice Aggs neatly puts it, ‘pictures work. And they work hard’. There is something irresistible in the ability of images to convey what words alone cannot. A Cartoon Abstract fills this void perfectly. Transcending language barriers, the artwork aids the understanding of complex concepts without diluting them, bringing wide appeal to often niche topics.

Who would have thought that research investigating themes as diverse, and apparently obscure, as the vocal repertoire of infant giant pandas and the effect of TV commercials on brand choice in Austrian children would generate almost 5,000 downloads between them?

The light-hearted approach of Cartoon Abstracts gives the research a more emotive, human element. Humour and parody pair well to strike a chord with readers, not to mention the authors themselves, many of whom can be found as characters in the cartoons. To use the words of featured author Gianluca Baio, they are ‘nerdy-fun’, making them likeable and worth sharing with friends and colleagues. Sometimes, ‘the sillier the picture, the more attention-grabbing it becomes’. Collectively, they deliver a concise summary of research in an easily digestible, adaptable format. We have even created a printed comic strip collating our science and technology cartoons for distribution at conferences, where they are by far our most popular giveaway.

Completing the story

The success of Cartoon Abstracts to date is all the more compelling a story given the field in which they operate. Academia is not an environment known for its visual strength. We saw this at first hand when Patrice joined Taylor & Francis at a workshop for scientists last year. She found that aligning a visual element with their research was a challenge for many of the attending academics. Cartoon Abstracts therefore became a way of ‘wrestling their ideas into a shape which works with images’, acting as a ‘flag-waver for visual communication’ in the process.     

Whether online, in print, or face-to-face, Cartoon Abstracts have added a sense of fun to a range of research, helping to extend its reach and appeal to countless audiences. Based on the current evidence, we shall continue to wave that flag for some time.