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Your Guide to Creating Effective Tables and Figures in Research Papers


Research papers are full of data and other information that needs to be effectively illustrated and organized. Without a clear presentation of a study's data, the information will not reach the intended audience and could easily be misunderstood. Clarity of thought and purpose is essential for any kind of research. Using tables and figures to present findings and other data in a research paper can be effective ways to communicate that information to the chosen audience.

When manuscripts are screened, tables and figures can give reviewers and publication editors a quick overview of the findings and key information. After the research paper is published or accepted as a final dissertation, tables and figures will offer the same opportunity for other interested readers. While some readers may not read the entire paper, the tables and figures have the chance to still get the most important parts of your research across to those readers.

However, tables and figures are only valuable within a research paper if they are succinct and informative. Just about any audience—from scientists to the general public—should be able to identify key pieces of information in well-placed and well-organized tables. Figures can help to illustrate ideas and data visually. It is important to remember that tables and figures should not simply be repetitions of data presented in the text. They are not a vehicle for superfluous or repetitious information. Stay focused, stay organized, and you will be able to use tables and figures effectively in your research papers. The following key rules for using tables and figures in research papers will help you do just that.

Check style guides and journal requirements

The first step in deciding how you want to use tables and figures in your research paper is to review the requirements outlined by your chosen style guide or the submission requirements for the journal or publication you will be submitting to. For example, JMIR Publications states that for readability purposes, we encourage authors to include no more than 5 tables and no more than 8 figures per article. They continue to outline that tables should not go beyond the 1-inch margin of a portrait-orientation 8.5"x11" page using 12pt font or they may not be able to be included in your main manuscript because of our PDF sizing.

Consider the reviewers that will be examining your research paper for consistency, clarity, and applicability to a specific publication. If your chosen publication usually has shorter articles with supplemental information provided elsewhere, then you will want to keep the number of tables and figures to a minimum.

According to the Purdue Online Writing Lab (Purdue OWL), the American Psychological Association (APA) states that Data in a table that would require only two or fewer columns and rows should be presented in the text. More complex data is better presented in tabular format. You can avoid unnecessary tables by reviewing the data and deciding if it is simple enough to be included in the text. There is a balance, and the APA guideline above gives a good standard cutoff point for text versus table. Finally, when deciding if you should include a table or a figure, ask yourself is it necessary. Are you including it because you think you should or because you think it will look more professional, or are you including it because it is necessary to articulate the data? Only include tables or figures if they are necessary to articulate the data.

Table formatting

Creating tables is not as difficult as it once was. Most word processing programs have functions that allow you to simply select how many rows and columns you want, and then it builds the structure for you. Whether you create a table in LaTeX, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, or Google Sheets, there are some key features that you will want to include. Tables generally include a legend, title, column titles, and the body of the table.

When deciding what the title of the table should be, think about how you would describe the table's contents in one sentence. There isn't a set length for table titles, and it varies depending on the discipline of the research, but it does need to be specific and clear what the table is presenting. Think of this as a concise topic sentence of the table.

Column titles should be designed in such a way that they simplify the contents of the table. Readers will generally skim the column titles first before getting into the data to prepare their minds for what they are about to see. While the text introducing the table will give a brief overview of what data is being presented, the column titles break that information down into easier-to-understand parts. The Purdue OWL gives a good example of what a table format could look like:

Table Formatting
An example of a table in the correct format.

When deciding what your column titles should be, consider the width of the column itself when the data is entered. The heading should be as close to the length of the data as possible. This can be accomplished using standard abbreviations. When using symbols for the data, such as the percentage "%" symbol, place the symbol in the heading, and then you will not use the symbol in each entry, because it is already indicated in the column title.

For the body of the table, consistency is key. Use the same number of decimal places for numbers, keep the alignment the same throughout the table data, and maintain the same unit of measurement throughout each column. When information is changed within the same column, the reader can become confused, and your data may be considered inaccurate.

Figures in research papers

Figures can be of many different graphical types, including bar graphs, scatterplots, maps, photos, and more. Compared to tables, figures have a lot more variation and personalization. Depending on the discipline, figures take different forms. Sometimes a photograph is the best choice if you're illustrating spatial relationships or data hiding techniques in images. Sometimes a map is best to illustrate locations that have specific characteristics in an economic study. Carefully consider your reader's perspective and what detail you want them to see.

As with tables, your figures should be numbered sequentially and follow the same guidelines for titles and labels. Depending on your chosen style guide, keep the figure or figure placeholder as close to the text introducing it as possible. Similar to the figure title, any captions should be succinct and clear, and they should be placed directly under the figure.

Using the wrong kind of figure is a common mistake that can affect a reader's experience with your research paper. Carefully consider what type of figure will best describe your point. For example, if you are describing levels of decomposition of different kinds of paper at a certain point in time, then a scatter plot would not be the appropriate depiction of that data; a bar graph would allow you to accurately show decomposition levels of each kind of paper at time "t." The Writing Center of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a good example of a bar graph offering easy-to-understand information:

Bar Graph Formatting
An example of a bar graph in the correct format.

If you have taken a figure from another source, such as from a presentation available online, then you will need to make sure to always cite the source. If you've modified the figure in any way, then you will need to say that you adapted the figure from that source. Plagiarism can still happen with figures – and even tables – so be sure to include a citation if needed.

Using the tips above, you can take your research data and give your reader or reviewer a clear perspective on your findings. As The Writing Center recommends, 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. If you can summarize the data in a couple of sentences, then don't try and expand that information into an unnecessary table or figure. Trying to use a table or figure in such cases only lengthens the paper and can make the tables and figures meaningless instead of informative.

Carefully choose your table and figure style so that they will serve as quick and clear references for your reader to see patterns, relationships, and trends you have discovered in your research. For additional assistance with formatting and requirements, be sure to review your publication or style guide's instructions to ensure success in the review and submission process.

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