Visual Abstracts – the art of illustrated science

Written by Maha J. Cziesielski

Sharing information has never been as easy as in today’s day and age; on every social media platform one can find sites that aim to make information easily accessible, and digestible, to all. Especially scientists, who have taken to platforms such as twitter and instagram to share not only their knowledge in their field, but also to promote their work. Why? Because there is a growing acknowledgment that, in a society where people are rushing for time, information needs to be concise and effortlessly understood – two adjectives not often used to describe scientific publications.

While one can troll around the internet with #fakenews, scientific publications undergo much more stringent assessments, often resulting in a vast amount of complex information compacted into text that, even for scientists outside the field, is difficult to understand. Part of scientists’ everyday efforts to communicate their research effectively is data visualization – whether we actively recognize this or not: making results figures appealing and easy to understand is fundamental to the success of a publication. Often, when simple graphics don’t do it or direct images/photographs are impractical, illustrations are used to encapsulate information that otherwise could not be conveyed easily.

Fig.1 – The Vitruvian Man, or also known as The Proportions of Man, is a drawing by Da Vinci based on the correlations of ideal human proportions described by the ancient Roman architect Vitruvius.

Illustration has played an incredible importance in the development of science itself: from Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man (Fig. 1) to the modern day Guild of National Science Illustrators; using visuals to communicate research has been– and always will be – vital! The alluring and stimulating way of illustrated information makes it easy for the reader to take up information, and attract them to continue learning more about the subject. Naturally then, illustrated science concepts, books, and comics have become quite popular, not only with children but also adults.

The use of science comics and cartoons is not new; as Tatalovic (2011) correctly points out, there is a growing popularity and expanding production as the focus on the public understanding of – and engagement with – science is continuously strengthened. Science Comics by Macmillan, Stuff of Life by Zander Cannon or the individual science cartoon sketches by Sydney Harris; types of comics vary in style, length and presentation. While these explain scientific concepts, they do not directly explain scientific research and methods.

In comes the newest form of science illustration: scientific research papers summarized in cartoons. The founders of the popular blog Sketching Science recently ventured into a new project in which, they enable researcher to submit their research for sketching and publishing in the first journal for illustrated science; The Journal of Sketching Science.  

Please take a moment to let the significance of this sink in: a scientific paper of around 5000 words (probably more); written by scientists; for scientists – now summarized in a one-page comic with about 100 words; sketched by illustrators; written by scientists; for anyone who has two minutes to spare. One does not have to be a scientist to see the value in this!

Using comics to share research directly from publications is a very different approach to science communication, but one that could change how scientific research is perceived by the public. Simplifying one’s research into an informative and engaging illustration is not a simple task. Yet, it is an opportunity for scientists of all fields to let their work reach virtually anyone. Dr. Clive Trueman from the University of Southampton (UK) drew a comic of his recent publication regarding shark feeding patterns and behaviors; the response was immensely positive (Fig. 2 ). In fact so far I have had much more engagement through the comic than though the paper (even from scientists in the field)” he told ReefBites. “It will be a something we try to do for any paper that has interest beyond a very technical audience”.

Shark Eating Habits_University of Southampton_Credit - Chris Bird & Clive Trueman, Univ of Southampton.jpg_SIA_JPG_fit_to_width_XL
Fig. 2 – A visual abstract of  the recent publication by Bird et al. (2018), sketched by Clive Trueman.

Science paper comics, or as I like to call them ‘Visual Abstracts’, may well become a new trend in science communication – the beginning of a new era so to speak. As always; the faster and easier information can be digested, the more success it has in reaching people. In a time where facts and opinions are becoming harder to discern, it is important that scientists make their work heard and understood – with all tools possible.



Bird, C., Verissimo, A., Magozzi, S. et al., 2018. A global perspective on the trophic geography of sharks. Nature Ecology and Evolution, 2; 299-305.

Tatalovic M., 2009. Science comics as tools for science education and communication: a brief, exploratory study. Journal of Science Communication.



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