Presenting tables

Some ways of printing tables in the text can cause difficulties for readers. One common problem relates to the positioning of the tables on the page. Tables are frequently placed mechanically by typesetters at the top or the bottom of a page (or column), irrespective of where they are mentioned in the text. This can cause difficulties for readers of an article when, say, the last table of the 'results' section appears in the middle of the 'discussion'.

Another related problem is how tables are fitted into the space allocated to them. Tables are typically set to fit the column- or page-width regardless of the effects that this might have upon their clarity. This can cause reading difficulties when a wide table cuts across the middle of a double-column spread. A more serious problem arises when the space between the columns is manipulated to make the table fit the space available, without taking into account whether or not that space is used to group the data appropriately. If, for example, there is more space between the data in the columns headed 'pre-' and 'post-test' for a series of columns, then the reader will group together unrelated data (see Table 3.5.6). Such problems of typesetting can be changed at proof stage — if you ask. There is no need to take them for granted.

Textbooks are available to help authors produce effective tables, ranging from the 'copy this' approach (e.g. Nicol and Pexman, 1999) to more detailed accounts of effective design (e.g. Tufte, 1983).

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