By Trevor C. Hunt
This article originally appeared on Student Doctor Network on February 27, 2020.
Welcome to “Research for the Rest of Us”, a column about navigating the complex intricacies of life in the lab. These articles aren’t for the superhuman Nature-publishing, Nobel Prize-winning MD/PhDs out there. They are for the rest of us: the Average Joes simply trying to get our feet wet in research. Join us as we journey through this complex world of academic adventures, from picking a project to matching into your dream residency and everything in between.
Welcome back to the third and final installment of the #Research miniseries on using social media to enhance your career as a student scientist. Over the last two months, we’ve covered the basics of using social media successfully in academia and taken a closer look at precisely how to set up your profiles and post great content. Now that you’ve mastered the skills necessary to maximize the return on your time invested, it’s time to examine a case study that exemplifies the power and relevance of social media in the current landscape of science.
Today, we’ll take a deep dive together and shine the spotlight on one recent movement that has begun to revolutionize how we share our science: visual abstracts. Visual or graphical abstracts combine many of the key tenets of social media savvy, like simplicity and attractive design, to provide a summary of your project that’s fit for modern modalities of dissemination and consumption. A quick search for #VisualAbstract on Twitter conjures up numerous examples. In this article, we’ll discuss the rise of visual abstracts and what they are, how to create a great one, and tips on applying visual abstracts in your work.
A Brief History of Visual Abstracts
The visual abstract was first envisioned by Andrew M. Ibrahim, MD in July 2016, during his time as the first Creative Director for the journal Annals of Surgery. Ibrahim noticed a study claiming that articles featured on Twitter were three times more likely to be read,1 and together with his coauthors set out to build a better, eye-catching method of scientific dissemination suited for social media.2
The team developed a standardized layout for visual abstract creation and conducted a prospective, case-controlled crossover study with the Annals of Surgery Twitter page. The findings? Tweet impressions increased 7.7-fold, retweets 8.4-fold, and article reads 2.7-fold when a visual abstract was posted versus an article title alone.2 Thus, by fully embracing the potential that Twitter brought to the table, the visual abstract was born.
By March of the following year, over 15 journals had already embraced the visual abstract in some way.3 A more recent assessment by Ibrahim now places the number at a whopping 95 and counting, providing clear evidence that visual abstracts are here to stay.4 While not yet ubiquitous, visual abstracts are currently enjoying a period of immense growth and widespread adoption thanks to the recent emphasis on social media as a tool to enhance the impact of emerging science.
Evidence to support the efficacy of visual abstracts is both abundant and compelling, making it no surprise that this medium has taken off so quickly after that original spark of ingenuity by Ibrahim. Data released directly by Twitter in 2016 found that tweets with under 50 characters generated 56% more engagement than those composed of 50-100.5 Visual abstracts exploit this strategy by default, shifting dense text into an accessible image. Another recent study found that adding an image to a tweet increased the odds of it garnering high engagement by a staggering factor of 28.6 Engagement often comes in the form of likes, retweets, and other sharing, all of which translate to more reads and citations for your research.
The Anatomy of a Visual Abstract
With the relevance of visual abstracts firmly established, it would serve each budding student-scientist well to learn a bit about how to create an effective one. Currently, journals are split on whether their staff or the paper’s authors should create the visual abstract. Most universities employ a graphic design team capable of whipping up a good graphic for you, but this will not always be the case. Furthermore, times will arise when you want to craft your own for other purposes, such as an upcoming podium talk at a big research meeting.
For those interested in a thorough masterclass, the movement’s founder Dr. Ibrahim has put together a number of invaluable resources. Together with his collaborators, Ibrahim has published a free primer on his website titled “Use of a Visual Abstract to Disseminate Scientific Research”. The term primer hardly does it justice though, as this definitive guide spans 57 high-yield pages. For those in a hurry, he’s also uploaded a brief webinar video which covers many of the same key points.
Here, I’ll summarize the big picture from Ibrahim’s work as well as my own personal experiences with visual abstracts. In general, I prefer visual abstracts that pick a key finding or two to focus on and maintain simplicity by not cramming every detail of the study into the panel. In the same way that you might prepare slides for a “quick shot” oral presentation of just a minute or two, I believe a visual abstract should just focus on the most important details the audience needs to understand your big takeaway message.
Dr. Ibrahim’s website presents many examples of good visual abstracts, and in once case breaks down the major components of an effective template. I’ll be referencing his template a lot in the upcoming paragraphs, so be sure to give it a look here while you read. This template includes a header, footer, and a main panel in between which occupies the majority of the space. In most cases this middle panel is broken into thirds, each containing either an aspect of the study (introduction, methods, results) or a unique research finding.
The header section includes either the paper’s title or an easily digestible summary of the key question that it addressed. For example, Ibrahim’s template reads “Impact of Treating Iron Deficiency Anemia Before Major Abdominal Surgery”. The footer, in contrast, contains the necessary details including the paper’s formal citation and the abstract’s creator. This will usually be the logo of the journal or the author’s institution, plus or minus their social media handles. Crammed just below this in barely legible font should be the copyright and legal language that the journal’s policies necessitate.
The central panel sandwiched in between is the main event, and therefore should take up the most real estate as well as the most time during the creation process. When split into thirds, parallel construction between each sub-panel is desirable and will enhance readability. Ibrahim suggests a three-piece composition here as well, consisting of text on the top and bottom of a simple, silhouette image.
On top he places the outcome comparison, which relates back to the title. For example, in the example anemia study he uses outcome comparisons like “Decreased need for blood transfusions” and “Shorter hospital length of stay”. Short, sweet, and to the point is the motto here. Below, a crisp monochrome image highlights the outcome and enhances rapid comprehension. Finally, he recommends a quantitative data point related to the outcome underneath this image. For example, the percent change or absolute difference in the metric in question. Arrows are encouraged here to show the temporal relationship before and after the study’s intervention.
Finding the right icon for these panels can be tough, as only a handful are included in Microsoft Office’s programs. In my experience, utilizing an institutional membership to Adobe Stock is best if your school offers one. However, free alternatives like Flaticon and Vecteezy can be just as useful in a pinch. Wherever you get your icons, remember to download them in vector file formats like .svg, .eps, .ai, and .pdf to ensure they look great in your visual abstract. Vectors rely on geometric shapes rather than pixels, rendering them immune to deterioration of quality from the resizing and formatting that occurs during graphic design.
Applications Old and New
With their utility and design out of the way, it’s finally time to talk about using your visual abstract. Twitter recommends that users attempt to create an emotional response when crafting tweets to maximize engagement.5 Visual abstracts are a great opportunity to do just that, as the importance and essence of your work can be translated much easier to the viewer via good design and compelling imagery than the wall of text that standard abstracts present.
Aristotle defined a method of persuasion termed pathos in his ancient Greek treatise Rhetoric.7 Essentially, it consists of appealing to the audience’s emotions to elicit feelings that already reside within them.8 A carefully designed visual abstract can employ pathos to its advantage, allowing the audience to connect emotionally with the content much more easily through embedded visual cues. A wall of text, on the contrary, rarely accomplishes this and may even repel the viewer and prevent any such bond forming.
Apart from their utility in reducing text on platforms like Twitter, visual abstracts have also begun to find a home in conference presentations. Astute speakers are aware that keeping an audience’s attention over fifteen minutes of dense research findings is a constant struggle, often ending with a dreaded, awkward silence when the moderator opens the floor to those with questions.
Traditionally, the PowerPoint slides accompanying a podium talk end with an acknowledgements slide or a simple phrase like “Questions?” left on the screen when it comes time for audience discussion. Most follow this format by default, without ever questioning if something of more value could be displayed instead. Thankfully, the early pioneers of visual abstracts are beginning to buck this trend.
A well-made visual abstract is the perfect image to transition to as your presentation comes to a close and the audience begins to formulate their comments. Instead of struggling to remember what they were going to ask or what your key finding was, the audience members now have a cheat sheet to glance at while in their seats and at the microphone.
Indeed, in those presentations I’ve seen where a visual abstract has been the closing slide, questions have been more common, more insightful, and more often of real benefit to both the speaker and other attendees. The next time you prepare for a talk, consider whipping up a visual abstract for the last slide and see for yourself!
And that’s a wrap! After three months of studying social media, our journey together through the #Research miniseries is finally coming to a close. From our discussion of social media’s merits to our crash course in sharing your science online and today’s deep dive into visual abstracts, you should now be well-equipped to take full advantage of research’s premier emerging forum. One of the greatest things about social media is that it constantly evolves, meaning you’ll have to stay up to date and shift your strategies often if you are to maximize its benefits. For more content to help you along the way, I recommend checking out Nature’s Social Media for Scientists collection. Until next time, happy hashtagging!
About the Author
Trevor C. Hunt is a rising fourth-year medical student and a member of his school’s Research Distinction Track, currently completing a one-year research fellowship. He authors the SDN column “Research for the Rest of Us”, using his experience to help others navigate the precarious pitfalls of life in the lab. He enjoys reading and art, and when not in the hospital or conducting experiments can often be found on a golf course or a ski slope. Find him on Twitter: @TrevorHunt_ECU
1. Baan CC, Dor FJ. The Transplantation Journal on Social Media: The @TransplantJrnl Journey From Impact Factor to Klout Score. Transplantation. 2017;101(1):8-10.
2. Ibrahim AM, Lillemoe KD, Klingensmith ME, Dimick JB. Visual Abstracts to Disseminate Research on Social Media: A Prospective, Case-control Crossover Study. Ann Surg. 2017;266(6):e46-e48.
3. Ibrahim AM. Use of a Visual Abstract to Disseminate Scientific Research, Version 4. https://www.surgeryredesign.com/s/VisualAbstract_Primer_v4_1.pdf. Published 2018. Accessed 25 Feb 2020.
4. Ibrahim AM. A Surgeon’s Journey through Research & Design. https://www.surgeryredesign.com/. Published 2020. Accessed 25 Feb 2020.
5. Hutchinson A. 8 Tips for Creating More Effective Tweets (from Twitter). Social Media Today. https://www.socialmediatoday.com/social-networks/8-tips-creating-more-effective-tweets-twitter. Published 2016. Accessed 19 Jan 2020.
6. Wadhwa V, Latimer E, Chatterjee K, McCarty J, Fitzgerald RT. Maximizing the Tweet Engagement Rate in Academia: Analysis of the AJNR Twitter Feed. AJNR Am J Neuroradiol. 2017;38(10):1866-1868.
7. Aristotle. Rhetoric. Roberts WR, trans. The Internet Classics Archive: Massachusetts Institute of Technology. http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/rhetoric.2.ii.html
8. Wikipedia contributors. Pathos. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pathos. Updated 17 Dec 2019. Accessed 20 Jan 2020.