Ask an Expert: Figure Formatting

This is the second part of our “Ask an Expert” interview series. In this installment, we speak with figure formatter Stacie Meaux about the top issues in her work.

Updated on May 13, 2014

AJE expert figure formatter Stacie Meaux

What is your role?

As an Academic Illustrator, I tweak an author's figures so that they meet the specifications of the chosen journal and look professional.

Why should authors care about figure formatting in general?

In many fields, the figures of an article are the first aspects that reviewers and readers will look at and judge because they directly display the results of a study. If reviewers or readers cannot understand the figures of an article, it may cause them to not believe in the validity of the results of the study. Therefore, in my opinion, figures are the most important part of a manuscript.

Learn more about AJE's illustration services here.

What are the top difficulties in your work?

  1. Getting very little input about what the author would prefer the figures to look like. We aim to give the author what he/she wants, so the more instruction he/she can provide, the better.
  2. Getting initial images that we cannot do much with. We cannot do anything to change the resolution of a low-resolution image, and there is very little that we can do if there is pixelated text burned into that image. For ethical reasons, we also cannot change the contrast or color of an image.
  3. Getting images (e.g., jpeg, tiff) of graphs or diagrams instead of vector-based files (e.g., Excel spreadsheets).
  4. Very few specifications listed by the journal.

How can these issues best be addressed by authors?

  1. The author can tell us what the figure should look like. We understand that many people are not familiar with programs such as Illustrator and Photoshop. We've had some people send us PowerPoint slides showing what the figure should look like. One problem with this is that things can get moved around when moving from one PowerPoint program to another. Other people have hand-drawn the figure and then taken a screen shot of it. This was especially helpful!
  2. We prefer getting primary data, such as the original image that the author gets from whatever program he/she is using to make the image. It is best to save images as high-resolution tiffs; from there, we can adjust the resolution accordingly. If text is needed on the image, sending us the original file as well as one with text is ideal.
  3. We prefer being sent vector objects (e.g., Excel spreadsheets, Eps files, Pdf files) for graphs because they are editable. We are often able to improve the appearance of non-vector graphs, but only if we feel confident that they can be reproduced with high fidelity by tracing. We do this very carefully, but we always prefer to use the native graph for the sake of accuracy.
  4. A lack of specifications isn't a problem that the author needs to deal with. When a journal gives very few guidelines for figures, we usually ask the journal for more specific guidelines. In most cases, they don't have those, so we go with what is typically done in the industry. In these cases, we will alter the figure for free if the journal is not happy with it.

Why should authors care about these particular issues?

Authors should care about how their figures look because they are a critical part of the manuscript. Figure formatters are capable of dealing with all of these pain points. However, when we do not get optimal files, we can only do so much with a figure. By sending us the file types that we need, we can give the author an accurate, professional-looking figure that won't be out-right rejected by the journal. By doing all of this upon the initial submission to us, the author saves time because we won't have to send an email asking for those files. This is especially important when the submission deadline to the journal is looming.

Interview moderated by Michaela Panter.

You can learn more about AJE's illustration services here.

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