Watch the details

An effective table results from attention to a myriad of details. Study the format used by your journal. Consult Instructions to Authors and recent journal issues for table style, and mimic this style carefully. If the journal doesn't specify details of table style (and many do not), these details can usually be deduced from tables that have appeared in recent issues.

Note the style of table numbers and titles, box headings, subheadings, field entries, and footnotes. Check the use of horizontal and vertical rules. See where and how sample sizes (n = 230) are reported, and remember to include them. Without sample size information, your study may have little worth to others.

For numerical data, use decimals rather than fractions to express parts of a whole number. Do not switch units of measure within a column. Instead, restructure the table so that the second kind of unit and accompanying data appear in another column. Alternatively, change one of the units to an equivalent number of the other so that a single heading can apply to all.

Indicate units in column headings. If row headings designate numerical data, include the appropriate unit of measure immediately after or below the headings, either within parentheses or after a comma, depending on the journal's style.

Fill all cells in the field. This can be done in various ways. One system is to use ellipses (. . .) instead of dashes for a missing entry, ND for "not done," and NA for "not applicable" or "not available." For maximal clarity, some writers also append a footnote to the table to explain these abbreviations.

Finally, remember that with the exception of certain camera-ready productions, print journals generally require that you double-space the entire table, including headings and entries in the text body. This requirement originally arose to aid beleaguered typesetters, who also appreciate not receiving photocopied reductions. Electronic journals, by contrast, often make you essentially become the typesetter; the final copy of the table will appear in whatever format you submit, complete with any errors.


The general term "figures" encompasses all the graphic aids that are not tables. Figures should be included in a scientific paper when they are needed for one of three E's: evidence, efficiency, or emphasis. Evidence is easy. If something of visual interest occurs during a clinical trial or a case study, one naturally wants to document it with a photograph. During a taxonomic study, an unusual structure or notable range in a character's expression seems to beg for illustration.

Efficiency implies that the figure is the most succinct and effective way to make a particular point. In a scientific paper, for best efficiency one should generally combine material rather than presenting a repetitious series of similar figures. Draw several curves on a single graph. Combine diagrams to illustrate steps in a procedure. Illustrations well prepared for an oral presentation generally present a relatively limited amount of information; they usually can and should be combined for publication.

Emphasis, the third E, is a major reason for using illustrations in a spoken talk. However, journal editors may consider emphasis alone to be insufficient for a published paper. Most editors will stringently assess each figure's usefulness in communicating the message of the paper.

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