A Glance at Graphical Abstracts

One of MIT Comparative Media Studies’ new research labs is ArchiMedia, which is run by Suzanne Lane and Andreas Karatsolis from Writing, Rhetoric, and Professional Communication (WRAP), a department devoted to teaching students how to analyze and produce effective communication in science and engineering. Our current line of inquiry can be summarized in a single question: How is digital media shaping new practices in professional communication and in communicating science and engineering to the public?

Consider the use of graphical abstracts. In academic articles and publications, the abstract is a summary of the work’s content and usually appears at the beginning of the work itself. A graphical abstract, then, could be defined as a visual representation of the key concepts in the work. Elsevier describes graphical abstracts as follows:

“…a single, concise, pictorial and visual summary of the main findings of the article. This could either be the concluding figure from the article or a figure that is specially designed for the purpose, which captures the content of the article for readers at a single glance.”

But perhaps showing rather than telling is a better way to demonstrate what a graphical abstract looks like. Below are two graphical abstracts from scientific journals.

See original abstract here.

Moulting of insect tracheae captured by light and electron-microscopy in the metathoracic femur of a third instar locust Locusta migratoria, Edward P. Snelling, Roger S. Seymour, Sue Runciman, Journal of Insect Physiology, Volume 57, Issue 9, September 2011, Pages 1312-1316See original abstract here.

See original abstract here.

Targeting the lymphatics using dendritic polymers (dendrimers), Lisa M. Kaminskasa, Christopher J.H. Porter, Advanced Drug Delivery Reviews, Volume 63, Issues 10-11, 10 September 2011, Pages 890-900.See original abstract here.

Notice that these graphical abstracts are not substitutes for their textual counterparts; instead, they scaffold the information presented in the original abstract. Also, while the intended audience for each abstract is still located within a specific scientific disciplines, non-experts can still amass an understanding of what the key concepts might entail.

That said, I’d like to provide a critique of graphical abstracts through the lens of media studies along the following parameters: spreadability, legibility, and serendipity.

Spreadability

The idea of “spreadable media” is characterized in a book by Henry Jenkins, Sam Ford, and Joshua Green called Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (Postmillennial Pop). It refers to the ability of contemporary media to be dispersed through and across platforms, formal and informal networks. Graphical abstracts summarize often dense scientific concepts visually with the aim of making informational more glanceable and more quickly consumable. Perhaps these same qualities make these otherwise dense concepts more shareable and spreadable within and beyond the scientific community. For example, Tumblr is a visually-focused blogging platform that enables users to easily share content in a feed. As it happens, there is a Tumblr solely dedicated to reposting graphical abstracts from science papers. Seemingly, this is curated from one account but aggregates examples of graphical abstracts from a wide variety of disciplines, and since the blog itself is public and connected to the wider Tumblr community, it’s very likely that non-scientists have come across content from this site in the past. Another nuanced aspect of “spreadability” is that it refers to a bottom-up approach to sharing media (i.e. individuals or self-organized communities share information), as opposed to a top-down approach (i.e. in which one or few authorities broadcast information).

Legibility

One could also make an argument that graphical abstracts render very technical and complex scientific concepts more legible to an interdisciplinary audience. Graphical abstracts provide visual cues that give the viewer some sense of the paper’s topic. Referring back to the examples above, a non-entymologist might still glean that the first abstract has something to do with insects, and a non-chemist might still understand from the labels in the second abstract that the paper has to do with lymphatics. We can also see this trend of visually representing information in public communications through the practice of data visualization, a growing discipline that seeks to make data and information more legible for wider audiences.

Serendipity

Finally, we might say that graphical abstracts make science articles more browseable, adding a layer of serendipity back into how one discovers different science publications. An editorial in Nature Genetics touches upon these two concepts: “we should not lose paper journals for browsing; [they have] an effect on serendipity.” The editorial expresses some anxiety over whether more digital forms of scientific knowledge consumption might put serendipity at risk, narrowing reading habits and disabling the stumbling across of other scientific topics while perusing journals. It may be that presenting scientific information visually makes browsing through an array of varied topics more possible.

Looking forward, we might see to research how else scientific information might be organized visually across different genres. For instance, the related production of video abstracts and animated abstracts might have different implications and intended audiences. And we may also seek to better understand whether certain scientific disciplines are more inclined toward the use of graphical abstracts than others. In a Nature Chemistry blog post, an author purports that it is no surprise that chemistry “embraced the graphical abstract so ardently…In particular, much of chemistry…relates to structure.” This media studies-oriented critique of graphical abstracts thus far might help us understand the motivations behind current uses of graphical abstracts as well as potential applications for them in the proximate future.

Lily Bui

Lily Bui

Ph.D. student, MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning