Graphic illustration should be part of scientist's skill-set?

By Grant Jacobs 03/01/2011

I don’t think so. I think people should make better use of the expertise around them.

DoctorZen has a written a brief commentary on Andrew Sun’s discussion about graphic abstracts; in it he writes:

We acknowledge, accept, and expect that being a professional academic requires a wide range of skills beyond just knowledge of a particular set of content. It is time to make graphic literacy part of that expected skill set.

I disagree.[1]

Some skills are basic to your core enterprise, some are not. In my opinion it is almost always better to leverage expertise outside of the immediate core skills, when it’s available.

Graphic illustration is not core to science.[1] There are good reasons that better research departments have an illustrations department.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying there is no place to do your own poster or to make use of those that through self-motivation or earlier work want to take on graphics too. I’m just saying insisting it be a required skill seems misplaced.

DoctorZen offers writing and statistics as being comparable skills to graphics work.

A basic standard of writing is to be expected of science graduates. That pretty much goes without saying, really, but having said that I sometimes wonder if research departments should make use of local PIOs (press information officers), etc., as informal copy editors of their papers.[2] (Most researchers will as a matter of course put the drafts past colleagues’ critical eyes.)

Statistics in one sense is a core skill, but non-statisticans are really best to work with a specialist statistician guiding them. In fact you’re best to sort of out the statistics at the time of writing the grant application and/or designing the experiment.

I see this in bioinformatics, too. It is relatively easy to paste data into a web browser to get some some sort of ’result’: whether that is the appropriate result, or if opportunities were missed through not being beware of alternative or more subtle analysis is another matter.

I hope readers are seeing an emergent pattern. Don’t go it alone with everything, use the expertise around you. There is truth, I think, in that some scientists are poor at ’letting go’, letting others with appropriate expertise cover part of the work.

One thing that really should be a core skill is plotting graphs. (Don’t get me started…)

The balance is what is your time best spent on. Consider the time involved in up-skilling, the frequency you would re-use that skill, the mistakes you will inevitably make, and their cost to you professionally and financially, and so on. Is it really a skill that you should take on, or one you should effectively out-source?

I have a tiny bit of an art background. Ancient history now really, but ‘my thing’ as a high school student was art, not science. When I listen to graphic design people talking about the challenges presenting some item, some of the basic themes ring bells (and back happy memories, too).[3]

If you’re so inclined it’s fun to illustrate, and I wouldn’t want to take that from anyone. But it can be time-consuming if you lack practice and, like statistics, bioinformatics and other skills, I think the wise might start by first running their plan by the local expert. You might even find with a little further exploration that in many cases you’d be better to give the job to them.

(And, yes, you’ll lose a little ‘control’, but if that’s bugging you, perhaps it’s time to learn not to be such a control freak?)


This follow-up at Bioemphemera may interest readers. (No commenting over there; share your thoughts below.)


[1] You’re welcome to show why researchers should take this on as a core ‘essential’ skill: don’t confuse my forthright statement for dogmatism!

[2] This fits into a wider view I have on how science communication from within universities might be better tackled. A topic for another day.

[3] I did at times think that electron microscopy or the like would have been an ideal fit for me. Mix imaging, biophysics, an interest in illustration and photography, and computer programming and it’d wouldn’t have been a bad ‘fit’ at all. If there is anything I’m interested in ‘illustrating’ these days, it’d be the three-dimensional structure and dynamics of the eukaryote nucleus, especially at a molecular level. (That’s more computational biology than illustration.)

Other articles on Code for life:

External (bioinformatics) specialists: best on the grant from the onset

Friday picture: molecular modelling of the cytoplasm

Coiling bacterial DNA

Molecular biology in museums

A holiday message to my readers

0 Responses to “Graphic illustration should be part of scientist's skill-set?”

  • Thanks for the comments! I don’t think we are in that much disagreement on this. I may have more to say about it later.

  • Hmmmm… Can’t really see the graphic design thing as core for most scientists – although an eye for what looks good does come in handy for presenting graphs & visuals. OTOH, wearing my teaching hat I do put a lot of effort into making sure that my slides both look good & convey the necessary concepts & information, so maybe the graphic design thing would be an asset there 🙂

  • Zen,

    Straight after I wrote the piece, I thought “damn” I should edit the thing to use his real name. What you get for trying to dash a post off in a hurry, eh? 🙂


    Good point about the teaching angle. Some of us have presentation side (that for some will be their dominant trade, even): teaching, writing textbooks, etc.

  • If a scientist is good at graphics and wants to expand his or her expertise in this area then that is great, however, I don’t see it as a core skill. Many of the scientists I know have augmented their core scientific skills in a variety of ways – illustrations, writing, blogging, education, art – I think the best idea is to encourage scientists to develop their skills which suit their talents and personalities.
    Many organisations have people with graphics expertise so perhaps a better use of scientists time would be to work collaboratively with graphics experts?

  • Aren’t we already teaching graphic design? isn’t that what advice like “not too much text on your slides” is?

    For me it’s not a case of “should we teach this?”, but “how much should we teach?”. For both graphic design and stats, I think it’s reasonable to teach a certain amount, but not everything: biologists should know how to use generalised linear models, but I wouldn’t ask them to work with things like interval censoring (unless it’s something they’ll be using a lot). I suppose it’s the same with graphic design: we should be expected to know the basics, so that our posters and talks look reasonable, but it’s silly to expect us to know as much as a professional graphic designer.

    (BTW, has your RSS feed for posts died?)

  • I hear what you’re saying: by degree rather than yea or nay. (I was thinking of beyond the absolute basics, of course.)

    (More later if I find time.)

    (BTW, has your RSS feed for posts died?)

    The services that serve RSS and twitter had problems late last year, perhaps they’re persisting? (I don’t really know as it’s out of my control and I don’t get RSS for this site – or any other for that matter!)

  • “A basic standard of writing is to be expected of science graduatates. ” This is a poor choice of sentences in which to make a spelling error. But on the plus side, it’s an excellent example of irony.

  • Harry,

    I’m happy for people to point out errors – blogs aren’t formal publications and will commonly have typos. Just a thought though – it’s usually wise to offer corrections politely 😉

    (On that note—seeing as you clearly like being a pendant, that is—let me return the favour: note that the error made was not a spelling error, but a typing error.)

  • There are two points here that should be considered separately. One is the subject discussed above of literacy/skills in software & technical aspects of aesthetics/theory (e.g. colour theory etc) associated with creating imagery in graphical abstracts. The second is the intellectual & educational merit of visual cognition which is employed in creating good graphical abstracts. The cognitive skills associated with visual representation are, and have always been, of huge import to science and scientists.

  • Readers should read Jessica Palmer’s thought on the subject (she’s an art + science type!) –

    She writes that my article “vehemently disagrees” with DoctorZen. I must be coming across more strongly than I meant! I do try make my opinion articles, well, opinionated. Not so much because I’m that much of a hot-head, so I worry that I’d read as being wishy-washy if I didn’t…

    I should probably say that part of my bias may be that the lab I did my Ph.D. did have a science illustration section, and I know there is local support for this too (on a smaller scale).

  • At an under-graduate level, the teaching of scientific illustration in its most basic form can be a useful tool for training students to ‘see’ – I’m thinking in paticular of the biological sciences, but from memory it was also useful in mineralogy.