We meet again, figure 1
If you’re new around here, I’m working on a handful of papers all at the same time. Five in total, all first author journal papers. For those not in academia, that’s a lot. I don’t know how this happened or why it happened, but here we are. Two of them are basically finished, two are just starting, and one will (hopefully) be started soon. Which brings me to the topic of the day, figure 1. Figure 1 is arguably one of the most important figures in the type of work I do, so let’s dive into why and what I’m trying to accomplish.
My Co-PI wanted me to finish my figure 1 this week before he leaves on vacation. I sent him a rough mockup of it yesterday and got his seal of approval to continue. Figure 1, in my line of research, is the figure that tells the reader what the heck we did. A good figure 1 will relate the rest of the figures and if we’re lucky, you’ll be able to get the general story by following the figures alone. That’s the hope, that’s the dream, that’s what we’re working towards in our lab.
Good figures are subjective, I may think something looks great while others cannot make heads or tails of it. We have some labs that constantly pump out really good looking figures. Okay, one lab in particular that my Co-PI and I name as shorthand when we say we want good figures. The trick is to be creative, but not too creative, to think “outside of the box,” but not so far away that you’re all alone. It’s a balancing act that we do and there are no hard rules about what to do or not to do so long as what you do makes sense.
A good figure 1 (again for my line of research) will layout the experiment that was performed, show what was measured and where (for us it’s usually EMG or muscle activity), and any other important bits of information. Translating how you do an experiment to a picture is difficult enough, but it also should convey the things we’re measuring from the person and that is, on occasion, a tricky task. You end up with a lot of overlap and your beautiful figure can end up marred by tiny labels needed because there are so many things going on in a small space. What ends up happening is a bunch of arrows pointed at roughly the same spot making the figure look more like a wiring diagram for an old VCR (seriously google that, like this one, it’s amazing we survived the 90’s).
Okay, back on topic. That’s the trick with the figure 1 that we’re looking for, it needs to be the condensed version of the paper. You should be able to look at the figure and get the experiment from the single picture. Considering a manuscript can be 10 or more pages, the bulk of which are used to describe what you did, figure 1 has a huge job. It’s probably why, in both my labs, we spend so much time making figure 1. We can end up going through dozens of changes, some major, before settling on something worth using.
Every once and awhile I get lucky. I was co-author on another paper that is in review…? I think… and I was asked to make the figure 1 for that paper as well. I came up with a really good idea about how to show what we did very simply, so I made the figure and sent it off. Everyone approved of it with some very minor changes, so I was done with it just like that.
Things aren’t always that easy, I went back and forth for weeks on a different paper that I was working on (one of the five I mentioned), that was a complex bit of figure because I needed to show the logic behind the code I created for the project. Eventually I got it though, so these things take time, but it’s always for the best. We end up creating some really nice looking figures, stuff that I’m always grateful that we spent time working on since I always save copies of old versions (a manual version control) and I can see how much better the figure ends up from where it started.
In fact, one paper should be going back after we got feedback so I may just post up the progression of how we created figure 1 once it gets published. I suspect it will be the first of the five to get published since the feedback we got on it was minimal. It would be good to show the thought process behind making a figure like that since talking about it feels a little abstract (only semi-intending on making that pun).
So now I’m working on the latest figure 1 for my Co-PI, the paper is going to be awesome and the science behind it is super cool. I cannot wait and I’m thankful to have my name attached (as first author no less!) to this work. I’ve already came up with some very interesting looking figures and I hope that it gets published quickly because I would gladly give up my anonymity for good (considering I’ve already done it a small handful of times) to brag about it.
I’ve got my work cut out for me, my Co-PI is expecting big things and so far I’ve managed to deliver most of them. We are aiming to finish and submit this paper by the end of the month, so fingers crossed! I should probably get back to work speaking of which, since the time between now and when we’re submitting it is already super short. I have to say, I’m really happy with how it’s coming out. Sometimes you have the right vision for the figure 1 and it comes out like you hoped. Maybe with enough practice I’ll get good at coming up with the design, then again maybe I should’ve taken some art classes.