Tips for visualising scientific data

Guidelines to help scientists increase the accessibility of their graphics.

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Scientific information can influence decision-making to achieve change.  The visualisation of data – whether through graphs, maps or other visuals – can play a critical role in the communication of scientific content.  The researchers looked at ways in which scientists can communicate their findings to both expert – and non-specialist audiences.

New guidelines, developed by researchers from University of East Anglia and Temple University, draw on the cognitive and psychological sciences to understand how the human brain best processes information.

Animating a graphic may help or hinder comprehension, and the language used can influence thought about the graphic.

The researchers used climate change data to explore the best way for scientists to present their findings to enhance communication and comprehension.

Key findings

  • Visual attention can be selective – communicators should avoid visual clutter
  • The language used in a visual can influence how it is understood
  • The layout of the data can influence comprehension
  • Communicators should direct attention to visual features of the graphic that support inferences about the data
  • Break down the graphic into visual ‘chunks’
  • Include only information for the intended purpose of the graphic
  • Identify the most important relationships in the data that are to be communicated; consider different ways of structuring the data that enable the viewer to quickly identify these relationships;
  • Use text to help direct viewers’ understanding of the graphic, for example by providing key knowledge needed to interpret the graphic.

The full article is available behind a paywall at Nature Climate Change.  The summary article is available on Data Driven Journalism.