Effective Use of Tables and Figures in Research Papers
Research papers are often based on copious amounts of data that can be summarized and easily read through tables and graphs. When writing a research paper , it is important for data to be presented to the reader in a visually appealing way. The data in figures and tables, however, should not be a repetition of the data found in the text. There are many ways of presenting data in tables and figures, governed by a few simple rules. An APA research paper and MLA research paper both require tables and figures, but the rules around them are different. When writing a research paper, the importance of tables and figures cannot be underestimated. How do you know if you need a table or figure? The rule of thumb is that if you cannot present your data in one or two sentences, then you need a table .
Tables are easily created using programs such as Excel. Tables and figures in scientific papers are wonderful ways of presenting data. Effective data presentation in research papers requires understanding your reader and the elements that comprise a table. Tables have several elements, including the legend, column titles, and body. As with academic writing, it is also just as important to structure tables so that readers can easily understand them. Tables that are disorganized or otherwise confusing will make the reader lose interest in your work.
- Title: Tables should have a clear, descriptive title, which functions as the “topic sentence” of the table. The titles can be lengthy or short, depending on the discipline.
- Column Titles: The goal of these title headings is to simplify the table. The reader’s attention moves from the title to the column title sequentially. A good set of column titles will allow the reader to quickly grasp what the table is about.
- Table Body: This is the main area of the table where numerical or textual data is located. Construct your table so that elements read from up to down, and not across.
Related: Done organizing your research data effectively in tables? Check out this post on tips for citing tables in your manuscript now!
The placement of figures and tables should be at the center of the page. It should be properly referenced and ordered in the number that it appears in the text. In addition, tables should be set apart from the text. Text wrapping should not be used. Sometimes, tables and figures are presented after the references in selected journals.
Figures can take many forms, such as bar graphs, frequency histograms, scatterplots, drawings, maps, etc. When using figures in a research paper, always think of your reader. What is the easiest figure for your reader to understand? How can you present the data in the simplest and most effective way? For instance, a photograph may be the best choice if you want your reader to understand spatial relationships.
- Figure Captions: Figures should be numbered and have descriptive titles or captions. The captions should be succinct enough to understand at the first glance. Captions are placed under the figure and are left justified.
- Image: Choose an image that is simple and easily understandable. Consider the size, resolution, and the image’s overall visual attractiveness.
- Additional Information: Illustrations in manuscripts are numbered separately from tables. Include any information that the reader needs to understand your figure, such as legends.
Common Errors in Research Papers
Effective data presentation in research papers requires understanding the common errors that make data presentation ineffective. These common mistakes include using the wrong type of figure for the data. For instance, using a scatterplot instead of a bar graph for showing levels of hydration is a mistake. Another common mistake is that some authors tend to italicize the table number. Remember, only the table title should be italicized . Another common mistake is failing to attribute the table. If the table/figure is from another source, simply put “ Note. Adapted from…” underneath the table. This should help avoid any issues with plagiarism.
Using tables and figures in research papers is essential for the paper’s readability. The reader is given a chance to understand data through visual content. When writing a research paper, these elements should be considered as part of good research writing. APA research papers, MLA research papers, and other manuscripts require visual content if the data is too complex or voluminous. The importance of tables and graphs is underscored by the main purpose of writing, and that is to be understood.
Frequently Asked Questions
"Consider the following points when creating figures for research papers: Determine purpose: Clarify the message or information to be conveyed. Choose figure type: Select the appropriate type for data representation. Prepare and organize data: Collect and arrange accurate and relevant data. Select software: Use suitable software for figure creation and editing. Design figure: Focus on clarity, labeling, and visual elements. Create the figure: Plot data or generate the figure using the chosen software. Label and annotate: Clearly identify and explain all elements in the figure. Review and revise: Verify accuracy, coherence, and alignment with the paper. Format and export: Adjust format to meet publication guidelines and export as suitable file."
"To create tables for a research paper, follow these steps: 1) Determine the purpose and information to be conveyed. 2) Plan the layout, including rows, columns, and headings. 3) Use spreadsheet software like Excel to design and format the table. 4) Input accurate data into cells, aligning it logically. 5) Include column and row headers for context. 6) Format the table for readability using consistent styles. 7) Add a descriptive title and caption to summarize and provide context. 8) Number and reference the table in the paper. 9) Review and revise for accuracy and clarity before finalizing."
"Including figures in a research paper enhances clarity and visual appeal. Follow these steps: Determine the need for figures based on data trends or to explain complex processes. Choose the right type of figure, such as graphs, charts, or images, to convey your message effectively. Create or obtain the figure, properly citing the source if needed. Number and caption each figure, providing concise and informative descriptions. Place figures logically in the paper and reference them in the text. Format and label figures clearly for better understanding. Provide detailed figure captions to aid comprehension. Cite the source for non-original figures or images. Review and revise figures for accuracy and consistency."
"Research papers use various types of tables to present data: Descriptive tables: Summarize main data characteristics, often presenting demographic information. Frequency tables: Display distribution of categorical variables, showing counts or percentages in different categories. Cross-tabulation tables: Explore relationships between categorical variables by presenting joint frequencies or percentages. Summary statistics tables: Present key statistics (mean, standard deviation, etc.) for numerical variables. Comparative tables: Compare different groups or conditions, displaying key statistics side by side. Correlation or regression tables: Display results of statistical analyses, such as coefficients and p-values. Longitudinal or time-series tables: Show data collected over multiple time points with columns for periods and rows for variables/subjects. Data matrix tables: Present raw data or matrices, common in experimental psychology or biology. Label tables clearly, include titles, and use footnotes or captions for explanations."
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Figures and Charts
What this handout is about.
This handout will describe how to use figures and tables to present complicated information in a way that is accessible and understandable to your reader.
Do I need a figure/table?
When planning your writing, it is important to consider the best way to communicate information to your audience, especially if you plan to use data in the form of numbers, words, or images that will help you construct and support your argument. Generally speaking, data summaries may take the form of text, tables or figures. Most writers are familiar with textual data summaries and this is often the best way to communicate simple results. A good rule of thumb is to see if you can present your results clearly in a sentence or two. If so, a table or figure is probably unnecessary. If your data are too numerous or complicated to be described adequately in this amount of space, figures and tables can be effective ways of conveying lots of information without cluttering up your text. Additionally, they serve as quick references for your reader and can reveal trends, patterns, or relationships that might otherwise be difficult to grasp.
So what’s the difference between a table and a figure anyway?
Tables present lists of numbers or text in columns and can be used to synthesize existing literature, to explain variables, or to present the wording of survey questions. They are also used to make a paper or article more readable by removing numeric or listed data from the text. Tables are typically used to present raw data, not when you want to show a relationship between variables.
Figures are visual presentations of results. They come in the form of graphs, charts, drawings, photos, or maps. Figures provide visual impact and can effectively communicate your primary finding. Traditionally, they are used to display trends and patterns of relationship, but they can also be used to communicate processes or display complicated data simply. Figures should not duplicate the same information found in tables and vice versa.
Tables are easily constructed using your word processor’s table function or a spread sheet program such as Excel. Elements of a table include the Legend or Title, Column Titles, and the Table Body (quantitative or qualitative data). They may also include subheadings and footnotes. Remember that it is just as important to think about the organization of tables as it is to think about the organization of paragraphs. A well-organized table allows readers to grasp the meaning of the data presented with ease, while a disorganized one will leave the reader confused about the data itself, or the significance of the data.
Title: Tables are headed by a number followed by a clear, descriptive title or caption. Conventions regarding title length and content vary by discipline. In the hard sciences, a lengthy explanation of table contents may be acceptable. In other disciplines, titles should be descriptive but short, and any explanation or interpretation of data should take place in the text. Be sure to look up examples from published papers within your discipline that you can use as a model. It may also help to think of the title as the “topic sentence” of the table—it tells the reader what the table is about and how it’s organized. Tables are read from the top down, so titles go above the body of the table and are left-justified.
Column titles: The goal of column headings is to simplify and clarify the table, allowing the reader to understand the components of the table quickly. Therefore, column titles should be brief and descriptive and should include units of analysis.
Table body: This is where your data are located, whether they are numerical or textual. Again, organize your table in a way that helps the reader understand the significance of the data. Be sure to think about what you want your readers to compare, and put that information in the column (up and down) rather than in the row (across). In other words, construct your table so that like elements read down, not across. When using numerical data with decimals, make sure that the decimal points line up. Whole numbers should line up on the right.
Other table elements
Tables should be labeled with a number preceding the table title; tables and figures are labeled independently of one another. Tables should also have lines demarcating different parts of the table (title, column headers, data, and footnotes if present). Gridlines or boxes should not be included in printed versions. Tables may or may not include other elements, such as subheadings or footnotes.
Quick reference for tables
Tables should be:
- Centered on the page.
- Numbered in the order they appear in the text.
- Referenced in the order they appear in the text.
- Labeled with the table number and descriptive title above the table.
- Labeled with column and/or row labels that describe the data, including units of measurement.
- Set apart from the text itself; text does not flow around the table.
Table 1. Physical characteristics of the Doctor in the new series of Doctor Who
Table 2. Physical characteristics of the Doctor in the new series of Doctor Who
Figures can take many forms. They may be graphs, diagrams, photos, drawings, or maps. Think deliberately about your purpose and use common sense to choose the most effective figure for communicating the main point. If you want your reader to understand spatial relationships, a map or photograph may be the best choice. If you want to illustrate proportions, experiment with a pie chart or bar graph. If you want to illustrate the relationship between two variables, try a line graph or a scatterplot (more on various types of graphs below). Although there are many types of figures, like tables, they share some typical features: captions, the image itself, and any necessary contextual information (which will vary depending on the type of figure you use).
Figures should be labeled with a number followed by a descriptive caption or title. Captions should be concise but comprehensive. They should describe the data shown, draw attention to important features contained within the figure, and may sometimes also include interpretations of the data. Figures are typically read from the bottom up, so captions go below the figure and are left-justified.
The most important consideration for figures is simplicity. Choose images the viewer can grasp and interpret clearly and quickly. Consider size, resolution, color, and prominence of important features. Figures should be large enough and of sufficient resolution for the viewer to make out details without straining their eyes. Also consider the format your paper will ultimately take. Journals typically publish figures in black and white, so any information coded by color will be lost to the reader. On the other hand, color might be a good choice for papers published to the web or for PowerPoint presentations. In any case, use figure elements like color, line, and pattern for effect, not for flash.
Figures should be labeled with a number preceding the table title; tables and figures are numbered independently of one another. Also be sure to include any additional contextual information your viewer needs to understand the figure. For graphs, this may include labels, a legend explaining symbols, and vertical or horizontal tick marks. For maps, you’ll need to include a scale and north arrow. If you’re unsure about contextual information, check out several types of figures that are commonly used in your discipline.
Quick reference for figures
Figures should be:
- Labeled (under the figure) with the figure number and appropriate descriptive title (“Figure” can be spelled out [“Figure 1.”] or abbreviated [“Fig. 1.”] as long as you are consistent).
- Referenced in the order they appear in the text (i.e. Figure 1 is referenced in the text before Figure 2 and so forth).
- Set apart from the text; text should not flow around figures.
Every graph is a figure but not every figure is a graph. Graphs are a particular set of figures that display quantitative relationships between variables. Some of the most common graphs include bar charts, frequency histograms, pie charts, scatter plots, and line graphs, each of which displays trends or relationships within and among datasets in a different way. You’ll need to carefully choose the best graph for your data and the relationship that you want to show. More details about some common graph types are provided below. Some good advice regarding the construction of graphs is to keep it simple. Remember that the main objective of your graph is communication. If your viewer is unable to visually decode your graph, then you have failed to communicate the information contained within it.
Pie charts are used to show relative proportions, specifically the relationship of a number of parts to the whole. Use pie charts only when the parts of the pie are mutually exclusive categories and the sum of parts adds up to a meaningful whole (100% of something). Pie charts are good at showing “big picture” relationships (i.e. some categories make up “a lot” or “a little” of the whole thing). However, if you want your reader to discern fine distinctions within your data, the pie chart is not for you. Humans are not very good at making comparisons based on angles. We are much better at comparing length, so try a bar chart as an alternative way to show relative proportions. Additionally, pie charts with lots of little slices or slices of very different sizes are difficult to read, so limit yours to 5-7 categories.
The chart shows the relative proportion of fifteen elements in Martian soil, listed in order from “most” to “least”: oxygen, silicon, iron, magnesium, calcium, sulfur, aluminum, sodium, potassium, chlorine, helium, nitrogen, phosphorus, beryllium, and other. Oxygen makes up about ⅓ of the composition, while silicon and iron together make up about ¼. The remaining slices make up smaller proportions, but the percentages aren’t listed in the key and are difficult to estimate. It is also hard to distinguish fifteen colors when comparing the pie chart to the color coded key.
The chart shows the relative proportion of five leisure activities of Venusian teenagers (tanning, trips to Mars, reading, messing with satellites, and stealing Earth cable). Although each of the five slices are about the same size (roughly 20% of the total), the percentage of Venusian teenagers engaging in each activity varies widely (tanning: 80%, trips to Mars: 40%, reading: 12%, messing with satellites: 30%, stealing Earth cable: 77%). Therefore, there is a mismatch between the labels and the actual proportion represented by each activity (in other words, if reading represents 12% of the total, its slice should take up 12% of the pie chart area), which makes the representation inaccurate. In addition, the labels for the five slices add up to 239% (rather than 100%), which makes it impossible to accurately represent this dataset using a pie chart.
Bar graphs are also used to display proportions. In particular, they are useful for showing the relationship between independent and dependent variables, where the independent variables are discrete (often nominal) categories. Some examples are occupation, gender, and species. Bar graphs can be vertical or horizontal. In a vertical bar graph the independent variable is shown on the x axis (left to right) and the dependent variable on the y axis (up and down). In a horizontal one, the dependent variable will be shown on the horizontal (x) axis, the independent on the vertical (y) axis. The scale and origin of the graph should be meaningful. If the dependent (numeric) variable has a natural zero point, it is commonly used as a point of origin for the bar chart. However, zero is not always the best choice. You should experiment with both origin and scale to best show the relevant trends in your data without misleading the viewer in terms of the strength or extent of those trends.
The graph shows the number of male and female spaceship crew members for five different popular television series: Star Trek (1965), Battlestar (1978), Star Trek: TNG (1987), Stargate SG-1 (1997), and Firefly (2002). Because the television series are arranged chronologically on the x-axis, the graph can also be used to look for trends in these numbers over time.
Although the number of crew members for each show is similar (ranging from 9 to 11), the proportion of female and male crew members varies. Star Trek has half as many female crew members as male crew members (3 and 6, respectively), Battlestar has fewer than one-fourth as many female crew members as male crew members (2 and 9, respectively), Star Trek: TNG has four female crew members and six male crew members, Stargate SG-1 has less than one-half as many female crew members as male crew members (3 and 7, respectively), and Firefly has four female and five male crew members.
Frequency histograms are a special type of bar graph that show the relationship between independent and dependent variables, where the independent variable is continuous, rather than discrete. This means that each bar represents a range of values, rather than a single observation. The dependent variables in a histogram are always numeric, but may be absolute (counts) or relative (percentages). Frequency histograms are good for describing populations—examples include the distribution of exam scores for students in a class or the age distribution of the people living in Chapel Hill. You can experiment with bar ranges (also known as “bins”) to achieve the best level of detail, but each range or bin should be of uniform width and clearly labeled.
XY scatter plots
Scatter plots are another way to illustrate the relationship between two variables. In this case, data are displayed as points in an x,y coordinate system, where each point represents one observation along two axes of variation. Often, scatter plots are used to illustrate correlation between two variables—as one variable increases, the other increases (positive correlation) or decreases (negative correlation). However, correlation does not necessarily imply that changes in one variable cause changes in the other. For instance, a third, unplotted variable may be causing both. In other words, scatter plots can be used to graph one independent and one dependent variable, or they can be used to plot two independent variables. In cases where one variable is dependent on another (for example, height depends partly on age), plot the independent variable on the horizontal (x) axis, and the dependent variable on the vertical (y) axis. In addition to correlation (a linear relationship), scatter plots can be used to plot non-linear relationships between variables.
The scatter plot shows the relationship between temperature (x-axis, independent variable) and the number of UFO sightings (y-axis, dependent variable) for 53 separate data points. The temperature ranges from about 0°F and 120°F, and the number of UFO sightings ranges from 1 to 10. The plot shows a low number of UFO sightings (ranging from 1 to 4) at temperatures below 80°F and a much wider range of the number of sightings (from 1 to 10) at temperatures above 80°F. It appears that the number of sightings tends to increase as temperature increases, though there are many cases where only a few sightings occur at high temperatures.
XY line graphs
Line graphs are similar to scatter plots in that they display data along two axes of variation. Line graphs, however, plot a series of related values that depict a change in one variable as a function of another, for example, world population (dependent) over time (independent). Individual data points are joined by a line, drawing the viewer’s attention to local change between adjacent points, as well as to larger trends in the data. Line graphs are similar to bar graphs, but are better at showing the rate of change between two points. Line graphs can also be used to compare multiple dependent variables by plotting multiple lines on the same graph.
Example of an XY line graph:
The line graph shows the age (in years) of the actor of each Doctor Who regeneration for the first through the eleventh regeneration. The ages range from a maximum of about 55 in the first regeneration to a minimum of about 25 in the eleventh regeneration. There is a downward trend in the age of the actors over the course of the eleven regenerations.
General tips for graphs
Strive for simplicity. Your data will be complex. Don’t be tempted to convey the complexity of your data in graphical form. Your job (and the job of your graph) is to communicate the most important thing about the data. Think of graphs like you think of paragraphs—if you have several important things to say about your data, make several graphs, each of which highlights one important point you want to make.
Strive for clarity. Make sure that your data are portrayed in a way that is visually clear. Make sure that you have explained the elements of the graph clearly. Consider your audience. Will your reader be familiar with the type of figure you are using (such as a boxplot)? If not, or if you’re not sure, you may need to explain boxplot conventions in the text. Avoid “chartjunk.” Superfluous elements just make graphs visually confusing. Your reader does not want to spend 15 minutes figuring out the point of your graph.
Strive for accuracy. Carefully check your graph for errors. Even a simple graphical error can change the meaning and interpretation of the data. Use graphs responsibly. Don’t manipulate the data so that it looks like it’s saying something it’s not—savvy viewers will see through this ruse, and you will come off as incompetent at best and dishonest at worst.
How should tables and figures interact with text?
Placement of figures and tables within the text is discipline-specific. In manuscripts (such as lab reports and drafts) it is conventional to put tables and figures on separate pages from the text, as near as possible to the place where you first refer to it. You can also put all the figures and tables at the end of the paper to avoid breaking up the text. Figures and tables may also be embedded in the text, as long as the text itself isn’t broken up into small chunks. Complex raw data is conventionally presented in an appendix. Be sure to check on conventions for the placement of figures and tables in your discipline.
You can use text to guide the reader in interpreting the information included in a figure, table, or graph—tell the reader what the figure or table conveys and why it was important to include it.
When referring to tables and graphs from within the text, you can use:
- Clauses beginning with “as”: “As shown in Table 1, …”
- Passive voice: “Results are shown in Table 1.”
- Active voice (if appropriate for your discipline): “Table 1 shows that …”
- Parentheses: “Each sample tested positive for three nutrients (Table 1).”
We consulted these works while writing this handout. This is not a comprehensive list of resources on the handout’s topic, and we encourage you to do your own research to find additional publications. Please do not use this list as a model for the format of your own reference list, as it may not match the citation style you are using. For guidance on formatting citations, please see the UNC Libraries citation tutorial . We revise these tips periodically and welcome feedback.
American Psychological Association. 2010. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association . 6th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Bates College. 2012. “ Almost everything you wanted to know about making tables and figures.” How to Write a Paper in Scientific Journal Style and Format , January 11, 2012. http://abacus.bates.edu/~ganderso/biology/resources/writing/HTWtablefigs.html.
Cleveland, William S. 1994. The Elements of Graphing Data , 2nd ed. Summit, NJ: Hobart Press..
Council of Science Editors. 2014. Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers , 8th ed. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.
University of Chicago Press. 2017. The Chicago Manual of Style , 17th ed. Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press.
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- Thursday, August 14, 2014
Guidelines for Using Figures and Tables in a Scientific or Engineering Thesis
By Rozita Rashtchi, PhD Student Systems & Computer Engineering
It is important that all figures and tables are organized and easy for the reader to find. Here are some tips:
- All figures and tables should be first referred to in the text and then appear as close as possible to their first mention, generally after the paragraph where they are cited or on the following page.
- All figures and tables should appear in the order of their numbers as well as their first mention in the text.
- Use colours in figures and tables to enhance details, but for being distinguishable in black-and-white print, make sure to use markers or different line styles as well.
- All figures and tables should stay within the page margins.
- Figures and tables, if necessary, may appear in landscape mode. Make sure that the top of them are at the binding edge and also the captions are in landscape mode too.
- All photos need a scale. All axes need a label with units. All rows and columns of a table need a title.
- All figures and tables should be legible. Make sure that all figures have a good resolution. If needed, copy clearly with source. Don’t hesitate to redraw poor reproduction of figures. (If you use someone else data, refer to it as “data from ref. X”).
- When mentioning a figure or table with a number in the text, use capitalized words like “as seen in Figure 3.”, but when mentioning in phrases, use ordinary style like “comparing to the previous figure”.
- It is preferred to refer to figures or tables in a phrase, like “Power decreases with the distance as shown in Figure 3.”, not like “Power decreases with the distance (Figure 3.)”.
Captions Every figure and table should have a caption. Here are some tips on using captions:
- A figure caption is centered under the figure; a table caption is centered above the table (if a caption is more than one line, make it left justified).
- A Figure and its caption should appear on the same page.
- All captions should start with a capitalized word and end with a period. They can be sentence case or title case, but be consistent throughout the thesis.
- If a figure or table spans more than one page, the first page has the complete caption while the subsequent pages have a caption like “Figure 3. Continued.”.
- Captions should say something enough about the figure or table which can be understood without referring to the main text.
- Figure and table numbers end with a period or colon like “Figure 3.” Or “Figure 3:”.
- Figures and tables are numbered consecutively throughout the thesis but independent from each other.
- Figure and table numbers can be in sequential order like “Figure 3.” or in chapter order like “Figure 1.3.”, but consistent throughout the thesis.
Applying the above guidelines will enhance the quality of your thesis. Note that readers will pay most attention to the tables and figures in your thesis and thus the most important information should be found in your figures and tables.
Other articles in this series can be found in our Grad Student Blog section.
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- Manuscript Preparation
How to Use Tables and Figures effectively in Research Papers
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Table of Contents
Data is the most important component of any research. It needs to be presented effectively in a paper to ensure that readers understand the key message in the paper. Figures and tables act as concise tools for clear presentation . Tables display information arranged in rows and columns in a grid-like format, while figures convey information visually, and take the form of a graph, diagram, chart, or image. Be it to compare the rise and fall of GDPs among countries over the years or to understand how COVID-19 has impacted incomes all over the world, tables and figures are imperative to convey vital findings accurately.
So, what are some of the best practices to follow when creating meaningful and attractive tables and figures? Here are some tips on how best to present tables and figures in a research paper.
Guidelines for including tables and figures meaningfully in a paper:
- Self-explanatory display items: Sometimes, readers, reviewers and journal editors directly go to the tables and figures before reading the entire text. So, the tables need to be well organized and self-explanatory.
- Avoidance of repetition: Tables and figures add clarity to the research. They complement the research text and draw attention to key points. They can be used to highlight the main points of the paper, but values should not be repeated as it defeats the very purpose of these elements.
- Consistency: There should be consistency in the values and figures in the tables and figures and the main text of the research paper.
- Informative titles: Titles should be concise and describe the purpose and content of the table. It should draw the reader’s attention towards the key findings of the research. Column heads, axis labels, figure labels, etc., should also be appropriately labelled.
- Adherence to journal guidelines: It is important to follow the instructions given in the target journal regarding the preparation and presentation of figures and tables, style of numbering, titles, image resolution, file formats, etc.
Now that we know how to go about including tables and figures in the manuscript, let’s take a look at what makes tables and figures stand out and create impact.
How to present data in a table?
For effective and concise presentation of data in a table, make sure to:
- Combine repetitive tables: If the tables have similar content, they should be organized into one.
- Divide the data: If there are large amounts of information, the data should be divided into categories for more clarity and better presentation. It is necessary to clearly demarcate the categories into well-structured columns and sub-columns.
- Keep only relevant data: The tables should not look cluttered. Ensure enough spacing.
Example of table presentation in a research paper
For comprehensible and engaging presentation of figures:
- Ensure clarity: All the parts of the figure should be clear. Ensure the use of a standard font, legible labels, and sharp images.
- Use appropriate legends: They make figures effective and draw attention towards the key message.
- Make it precise: There should be correct use of scale bars in images and maps, appropriate units wherever required, and adequate labels and legends.
It is important to get tables and figures correct and precise for your research paper to convey your findings accurately and clearly. If you are confused about how to suitably present your data through tables and figures, do not worry. Elsevier Author Services are well-equipped to guide you through every step to ensure that your manuscript is of top-notch quality.
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Creating tables in scientific papers: row and column titles, units, error values and sample sizes
This is the second post in our series about creating and editing scientific tables. In the first post , we saw how basic table formatting and effective table titles could be used to improve an example of a poorly constructed table.
This post will deal with table row and column titles, units, error values and sample sizes. Let’s continue with the example table that we began to improve in the first post .
Fig. 1: Improved table after placing values in individual cells, formatting and double spacing, and adding an informative title.
Rule 4. Use short, descriptive row and column titles
The title of Table 1 (above) indicates the data in the table is about wheat plants exposed to salinity. Unfortunately, the row titles do not provide any useful information, except to show there were two groups in the experiment (control and test).
If this table was in a scientific paper, you could read the materials and methods section to find out how the control group and test groups were treated. However, every table should be understandable on its own, without having to look at other parts of the paper.
Therefore, the row titles in Table 1 should be the concentration of salt used in each group, perhaps Control (0 mM NaCl) and 50 mM NaCl (instead of control and test).
The column titles (light, 5 days and 10 days) in Table 1 are quite obvious: the researcher probably exposed the wheat plants to different periods of light each day, and then measured plant height after 5 and 10 days.
However, it is important to remember that simple titles such as “light” may be easily misunderstood by someone who is not familiar with your research.
Table 1 could be improved if the row titles provided a little more information, perhaps “Light exposure per day (hours)” or “Light/day (h)” instead of “light”. Similarly, “5 days exposure” and 10 days exposure” would be better than “5 days” and “10 days”.
If you need to use long or complicated titles that don’t easily fit in the column or row titles (for example, non-small cell lung carcinoma) then it is fine to use abbreviations (NSCLC), as long as you remember to define them in the table footnote.
Again, this makes the table easier to read and prevents your reader from having to look through the paper for the definitions for each abbreviation.
Rule 5. Always include the units, error values and number of samples
Although we have improved the content of Table 1 by changing the row and column titles, some very important information is still missing.
You could probably guess that the height of wheat plants is measured in centimeters, and the light exposure per day was measured in hours.
However, you may not be able to guess the correct units in every table (and your reader should never have to guess!!), so the units should be included in every table.
Additionally, it is not known what the numbers placed after the “±” represent in Table 1, as they could be the standard deviation or standard error of the mean. Therefore, every table should include the units (for example cm and hours) and define the error values (for example mean ± S.E.M.).
It is also important to show how many samples (or patients, cultivars, replicates) were in each group, especially if the sample sizes varied. You can choose where to include the units, error values and sample sizes, depending on the layout and information in your table.
For example, the units can be placed after every value, placed in a new row at the top of the table along with the type measurement as shown in Fig. 2 below or placed in a footnote, for example: “Values are mean centimeters ± SEM; ( n = 5 per group).”
Fig. 2: Examples of different ways to include the units, error values and sample size information in a scientific table.
The table is improved by including more information in the row and column titles (rule 4), and defining units, error values and sample sizes (rule 5).
However, there is still some information missing and a few minor mistakes. Can you see any?
In the final post of this series, I will discuss the final pieces of information that should be included in every scientific table.
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3. DOCUMENT DESIGN
3.4 Figures and Tables
Visual elements such as graphs, charts, tables, photographs, diagrams, and maps capture your readers’ attention and help them to understand your ideas more fully. They are like the illustrations that help tell the story. These visuals help to augment your written ideas and simplify complicated textual descriptions. They can help the reader understand a complicated process or visualize trends in the data. The key concept to remember here is that visuals clarify , illustrate, and augment your written text; they are not a replacement for written text. The old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words” may not always not hold true in technical writing, but adding visuals may save you a hundred words or so of additional explanation and clarification. If you have visual elements in your document, they must be based on and supplement your written content. Throwing in “gratuitous graphics” just to decorate or take up space can confuse your reader.
It is important to choose the right kind of visual to convey the story you want your reader to understand. If visuals are poorly chosen or poorly designed for the task, they can actually confuse the reader and have negative consequences. For example, it’s very likely that the first thing you noticed when you opened this page was the image above. Did you wonder why is it there? Has it distracted you?
Conventions for Integrating Visuals in your Document
Each style of visual has its own conventions that you will recognize after you have seen enough of them. In addition, different publications have different style guides that dictate the specifics of how to format and integrate visual elements. In general, however, whenever you integrate any kind of visual, you should adhere to five key rules.
- Give each visual a numbered caption that includes a clear descriptive title
- Refer to the caption number within the body text and discuss its content
- Label all units (x and y axes, legends, column box heads, parts of diagrams, etc)
- Provide the source of the data and/or visual image if you did not create it yourself
- Avoid distorting the data or image.
In addition, visual elements should also be surrounded with sufficient passive space to emphasize the image and enhance its readability. If copying and pasting an image, make sure all elements are clear and the print size is readable. A visual that has been shrunk down to an unreadable size does not help the reader understand your ideas. Whenever possible, try to orient the visual image in the same direction as the body text.
Examine Figure 3.4.1 below. Do you understand what information it conveys? What story it’s trying to tell? What is missing?
If you look carefully, you might be able to guess what story this graph is telling. However, the lack of a descriptive caption and labelling of axes makes it impossible to know for sure. Compare it to Figure 3.4.2 below.
Figure 3.4.2 has a numbered caption (which I have just referred to in my paragraph), a descriptive title, and it has properly labelled x and y axes and legends. With this added information, the story starts to take shape. The graph tells the story of the fluxuating water demand in Edmonton during the 2010 Olympic gold medal hockey game. If you add some context that flushing of toilets is one of the main causes of water demand, the story comes into focus. The figure also cites the source the graph was retrieved from in the caption using an in-text citation, which is linked to a full reference below. Therefore, if you want more information about this data, you can find it. The original image has not been distorted in any way. Thus, Figure 3.4.2 follows the five key rules listed above.
In addition to those five general rules, there are specific guidelines for implementing them. These are outlined in detail in the Faculty of Engineering Co-op Work Term Report Guideline (.pdf) .
Visual elements are referred to as either Tables or Figures . Tables are made up of rows and columns and the cells usually have numbers in them (but may also have words or images). Figures refer to any visual elements—graphs, charts, diagrams, photos, etc .—that are not Tables. They may be included in the main sections of the report, or if they contain supplemental material they may be contained in an appendix. Try to ensure that figures and tables are not broken over two pages. Tables that require a full page might be best put in an appendix.
Labelling T ab l es and F i gu re s
Tables and figures must all be labelled with numbered captions that clearly identify and describe them. Figure captions are generally placed below the figures, while table captions must be placed above the tables. This is because we generally read tables from the top down, and therefore want to see the caption at the top. Figures are not always read top down. When you open a page and see a figure, the first thing you want to know is “what is that?” The caption below it should immediately identify what the figure represents for the reader. If you choose to place figure captions above the figures, do so consistently throughout your document.
Use the following conventions to assist the reader in understanding your graphics:
- Numbering : Table and Figures are numbered sequentially, but separately
e.g. Table 1, Table 2, Figure 1, Figure 2, Table 3, etc .
- Captioning : After the Figure or Table number, add a descriptive caption that clearly indicate what the figure or table illustrates without having to read anything else on the page.
There are two systems for numbering figures and tables within your document:
- Simple Consecutive Numbering : All figures and tables are numbered consecutively (Figure 1, Figure 2, Figure 3, Table 1, Table 2, Table, 3 etc .) throughout the document regardless of which section they are in.
- Section-based Numbering : Within each section, figures and tables may be numbered sequentially through each section (e.g. Table 1.1 refers to the first table in section 1, Table 2.4 refers to the fourth table in section 2).
If a large number of illustrations are presented, the latter option is the better choice. This can become confusing, however, when using sub-sections.
If the table or figure that you present in your report was not created by you, but comes from other sources, you must include a reference for the original source in your caption: e.g .: Figure 1. Network Design . You must ensure that all figures and tables represent data accurately and ethically, and that they do not distort data to create bias.
Using the Insert → Caption … function will allow Word to keep track of the Figure and Table numbering for you, and allow you to auto-create a List of Figures and Tables at the beginning of your document.
If you don’t use the Insert Caption function, then you should manually change the font of your captions to distinguish them from body text. Caption font is usually slightly smaller than body font and is often italicized. The numbered portion is often bolded in both the caption and in the in-paragraph reference to the figure or table for ease of cross-referencing.
Referring to Tables and Figures in your Text
Any figures or tables you use in your document must be discussed in your text. Use the following guidelines when discussing and referring to tables and figures:
- Place the table/figure close to where it is first referred to in the text (preferably immediately below the paragraph in which it is first mentioned).
- Refer to tables and figures in your text by their numbers, not their placement in the text. E.g , “See Figure 9 for a detailed schematic” ( not “see the figure below”); “the test results are summarized in Table 1.”
- When referring to a figure or table in your body text, it is helpful to place the reference in bold font.
Selecting the Right Visual
Table 3.1.1 lists common kinds of visual elements used in technical writing, along with their general purpose or description (for a more detailed discussion of how and when to use these kinds of visuals, see Graves and Graves.  Notice the “box head” on the top and “stubs” on the left are bolded and centred to enhance readability. Tables that have text in the cells instead of numbers can also be referred to as figures. Thus, Table 3.1.1 could have been captioned as Figure 3.7 instead.
For more information on how to format a long report, see the Faculty of Engineering’s “Co-op Work Term Report Guidelines.” 
EXERCISE 3.7 Design a figure to match the data
Using what you have learned about figures and tables, create two different visual representations of the data described in the following paragraph, and caption them as Figure 1. Add your descriptive caption. Explain why you chose those methods and list the pros and cons of each:
We surveyed the students in 3 sections of ENGR 240 (total of 100 students) to gauge which aspect of the writing process they found most challenging: Pre-writing, Drafting, or Revising. The results among the 3 sections were consistent. Overall 50% of students said that they found the Pre-writing stage to be the most challenging, while 28% found the Drafting stage most difficult and 22% said the Revision stage was most challenging (see Figure 1) . These results suggest that we should place more emphasis on teaching and practicing pre-writing strategies during the course.
[create a Figure 1 and a descriptive caption that illustrates the data above]
For a look at how professionals can animate data, check out Hans Rosling’s “The Joy of Stats” on YouTub e [Online].
Figure 3.4.1 image description:
A graph with no figure number or caption and no x or y axis labels, so it is difficult to determine what point it is trying to make. It shows something rising and falling during a hockey game. This thing spikes at the end of each period and drops dramatically when Canada wins.
[Return to Figure 3.4.1]
Figure 3.4.2 image description:
A graph charting water consumption in Edmonton during the 2010 Gold Medal Hockey Game. The graphs shows spikes in water consumption at the end of each period, followed by very low usage periods, especially near the end of the 3rd period, and between the end of the game and the medal ceremony. It also has a line depicting water usage the previous day, which was fairly steady throughout the day.
[Return to Figure 3.4.2]
- EPCOR, Edmonton’s Water Utility. “Water Consumption in Edmonton during 2010 Gold Medal hockey game,” Cited on Flowing Data[Online] Available: https://flowingdata.com/2010/03/09/canada-the-country-that-pees-together-stays-together/ ↵
- H. Graves and R. Graves, “Communicating through visuals,” in A Strategic Guide to Technical Communications , 2nd ed. Peterborough, ONT: Broadview Press, 2011, pp. 137-148. ↵
- Engineering Co-op Work Term Report Guidelines (.pdf) ↵
Technical Writing Essentials by Suzan Last is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License , except where otherwise noted.
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Additional resources, tables and figures.
Tables and figures are used to display quantitative information. Readers find technical information easier to understand when the description or discussion contains a visual element. Tables and figures do not replace technical information; rather, they make it easier for readers to understand large quantities of data. When organizing data, keep the following in mind (Knisely, C.W. and Knisely, K.I., 2015):
- If the results can be stated in one sentence, no visual is needed.
- If the numbers are more important than the trend, use a table.
- If the trend is more important than the numbers, use a graph.
General Guidelines for Tables and Figures
Tables are defined by rows and columns containing text or numerical data. Figures are defined as any visual element that is not a table. Line graphs, pie charts, photographs, sketches, schematics are all types of figures. In technical documents, a table or a figure—not both—are used to present data. Tables and figures should be understandable to the reader without reference to the text.
Tables and figures are numbered independently in the sequence in which they are referred to in the text and start with Table 1 and Figure 1. Note: it is acceptable to abbreviate the word “Figure” as “Fig.” The word “Table” is not abbreviated.
Every figure and table used MUST be referred to in the text. The reference to the figure or table should be informational and draw the reader’s attention to the relationship or trend being highlighted. Text should not flow around a figure or table.
Germination rates were significantly higher after 24 h in running water than in controls (Fig. 4).
DNA sequence homologies for the purple gene from the four congeners (Table 1) show high similarity, differing by at most 4 base pairs.
Sentences that only refer the reader to the figure or table and give no information about the data should be avoided.
Table 1 shows the summary results for male and female heights at Bates College.
Tables and figures should be placed as near as possible to where the data is first referred to in the document. Never split a figure or table on two pages. Multiple figures or tables used in a document should all be similar in style (font style, font size, etc.).
In written reports, titles are not used on figures or tables; instead, the information is placed in a caption. Captions for tables are placed above the table (typically left aligned), and captions for figures are placed below the figure. NOTE: Titles for figures and graphs can be used for oral presentations and posters.
Captions should contain a number, title, and any other appropriate explanatory information, including citations if the data was taken from another source.
Captions convey information to the reader about the “story” being told with the figure or table. Effective captions should:
- Serve as a brief, yet complete, explanation of the data.
- Can be written as full sentences (using sentence case capitalization) or as fragments (using title case capitalization).
- Tell the reader what to look for.
- Clearly indicate what results are shown in the context of the study.
- Include the unit of representation of data and time period (if appropriate).
- Are typically one font size smaller than the document text.
- Are typically left aligned with the table or graph.
- Clearly indicate what results are shown.
- Contain a citation if information or data come from another source.
Tables are used when illustrating exact numbers rather than trends.
- Be discussed and referenced in the text before they appear.
- Contain a correctly formatted and worded caption.
- Be numbered sequentially (but separately from figures).
- Contain short, descriptive, horizontal (preferred) column headings (long column headings can be set at an angle and rotated for reading if necessary).
- Contain units (centered and in parentheses) below the column heading.
- Use horizontal lines sparingly and use no vertical lines.
The below ground requirements, based on the amount of rock volume needed to sustain plant operations for a 20-year period, are tabulated for a range of plant sizes on a per MW e basis for the surface plant and auxillaries and for the subsurface reservior in Table 1.
Table is disucssed in text prior to table placement.
Caption is usually 1-2 font sizes smaller than text
Table 1. Estimated land area and subsurface reservoir volume needed for EGS development. Note: Above 100 MW e reservoir size scaling should be linear.
Column headings are centered and bolded with the first word capitalized (and poper nouns)
Units included in column heading
Numerical data centered; data containing decimals right aligned (unless easy to center); text left aligned
No vertical lines for simple tables
Horizontal lines used sparingly
Additional guidelines for tables:
- Decimal points should be aligned; otherwise, numbers should be right justified.
- Columns containing text should have left aligned headings and content.
- Columns containing numeric data should have centered headings and content.
- Numeric data containing decimal points should be centered and aligned by decimal point.
Figures are visual presentations of results, including graphs, diagrams, photos, drawings, source code, and schematics. Engineers have a need to communicate quantitative data, and graphs are the best way to visually represent that data. Graphs, therefore, should require minimal effort on the part of the reader in both understanding and interpreting data.
While there are generally accepted guidelines for creating graphs, opinions differ on best practices. Easy-to-read graphs are not easy to make, and software defaults rarely produce effective graphs. Because graphs are the most common type of figure used by engineers, guidelines for creating effective graphs are discussed below.
Choose the right kind of plot for your data
- Scatter Plots (also known as X-Y Graphs) show the relationship between two or more quantitative variables and are used to show trends or relationships in the data over time. Plot the independent variable on the X axis (the horizontal axis) and the dependent variable on the Y axis (the vertical axis). Points are not connected in a scatter graph.
- Line Graphs are similar to scatter plots in that they record individual data values. The difference is that in a Line Graph a line connects the data points.
- Bar Graphs are used to compare individual sets of data when one of the parameters is categorical, not quantitative. Vertical bars are typically used but horizontal bars can be used when category labels are long.
- Histograms are a type of bar chart where numbers are grouped into ranges. Histograms show the frequency of a continuous data set.
- Pie Graphs are used to show data as a percentage of the total data.
Eliminate unnecessary formatting
Figures should be simple and clear. Grid lines, borders, background patterns, and 3-D effects distract from the message and should generally be avoided. Formatting recommendations include:
- Use a serif font (Times New Roman) if the graph is to be displayed in a written format; use a sans serif font (Ariel or Calibri) if the graph is to be displayed electronically.
- A 10 pt font size is recommended but can range from 8 pt to 12 pt.
- Standardize the format for multiple graphs used in a document.
- Portrait (vertical) orientation is preferred. Figures with a landscape orientation should be oriented so when the reader rotates the figure, the graph reads from left to right.
- Figures should be of high image quality with minimal pixelization.
- If a legend is necessary, place the legend within the axes boundaries. An alternative is to place the legend in the caption.
Figure 1. Tesla turbine front and side view . OR Figure 1 Tesla turbine front and side view .
NOTE: The word Figure or Table and the associated number are typically bolded. The use of a period after the figure or table number is optional.
Use color carefully. It is generally recommended that color not be used in graphs that will be published or reproduced. Graphs using color when reproduced in black and white will distort the meaning of the data. Eliminate gray-scale shading and patterning. When displaying multiple lines on the same graph, an alternative to using color is to change the line types (solid, dashes, dots, etc.).
NOTE: For poster presentations or PowerPoint presentations, color can be used.
Include all necessary information
Clearly label both axes, including measurement units. Identify symbols and patterns in a legend within axis boundaries (preferably) or in the caption. If the graph has error bars, indicate in the caption whether they are 95% confidence interval, standard error, standard deviation, comparison interval, etc.
Although there are few “hard and fast” rules when plotting data, the following guidelines should be observed:
- Plot no more than six data sets on a single graph.
- Select major scale divisions (tick marks) as multiples of 1, 2, or 5.
- Include error bars (SD or SEM) or uncertainty bands when plotting means.
- Provide a legend that identifies data sets. The legend should be placed within the axis boundaries (preferably on the right side of the graph).
- Keep the aspect ratio square unless illustrating variation on the axes.
- Include the origin (zero) on a linear scale (unless the data is best illustrated by changing the origin).
- Label axes clearly and include the units in parentheses (preferred) or square brackets.
- Include an initial zero on numbers less than one.
10 -4 or smaller.
- Use closed symbols for data points. Open symbols can be useful for plotting overlapping data.
- Use different line styles to distinguish several curves on the same plot (solid, dashed, dotted).
- Using a line to illustrate continuous data and plotting individual data points using a scatter plot, histogram, or bar chart.
Although Excel produces visually appealing graphs, the software defaults are seldom standard for technical documents. Whenever possible, use graphic software (Kaleidagraph, SigmaPlot).
Almost Everything You Wanted to Know About Making Figures and Tables, abacus.bates.edu/~ganderso/biology/.../HTW_Guide_Table-Figures_9-30-08.pdf, 2008
(Knisely C.W., and Knisely, K.I. 2015)
Guide to Fairly Good Graphs
First Detailed View of the Tesla Turbine