Effective Data Presentation Making Figures and Tables

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Effective Data Presentation Making Figures and Tables

  • Dr. Gail P. Taylor
  • University of Texas at San Antonio
  • Professional Skills Development
  • 02/04/2009


  • Scientific Papers and Presentations, by Martha Davis. Academic press, 1997
  • Survival Skills and Ethics Program: www.pitt.edu/~survival
  • Department of Biology, Bates College http://abacus.bates.edu/~ganderso/biology/resources/writing/HTWtoc.html

“Graphic Excellence is that which gives to the viewer the greatest number of ideas in the shortest time with the least ink in the smallest place.” Edward R. Tufte


  • Simplify message without falsifying data
  • Generally need either graph or table
  • Present with clarity, brevity
  • Note prior conventions
  • What types of data presentation formats do you know?
  • How are they different?

Data Presentation Formats

  • Tables
    • Specific data
    • Exact comparisons between data points
  • Bar Charts
    • Less numerically specific
    • Examine differences rather than trends/changes
    • Comparisons of size, magnitude, amounts
  • Line Graphs
    • Not numerically specific
    • Demonstrate movement, change, trends
    • Generally over time or concentration

Using a Table

  • Should be able to stand on its own
  • Show data, and possible manipulations
    • Percentages, totals, means, averages, ratios, etc.
    • Columns contain Ind. Variables (that which was manipulated

Good Table

  • Legend- complete
  • Stands on own
  • Note capitalization
  • Period after "Table 2"
  • Units included
  • Legend above the table;
  • Note clarifying footnote
  • Lines of demarcation separate numerical data from text.
  • Gridlines not present

More on Tables

  • Limit total items/columns
    • (But more than than 6-8 datapoints)
  • No vertical lines
  • Do not overload with headings
  • Use captions/footnotes for definitions
  • Strings of “0’s” or unchanging data might not be included
  • Use restraint with decimal places
  • Obvious abbreviations can be included
  • Don’t repeat data in text, just call attention to main points

Preparing a Table

  • Examine style sheet and examples
  • One table, one page, double spaced
  • Use Arabic numerals to number
  • Group so that comparisons run down column
  • Logically group data to stress baseline and trends
  • Round off numbers and align decimals
  • Create a descriptive caption (no verb required)
  • Use head- or foot-notes to explain abbreviations
  • Verify all data
  • Verify accuracy of use of symbols
  • Use consistent labeling throughout paper
  • Proofread carefully

Tables in a Poster/Presentation

  • Time limitations- make more simple
  • Utilize color, shapes, to emphasize
  • Symbols are okay

Actually Making a Table

  • Use publisher’s recommendations
  • Can use Word or Excel (I like Word)


  • Illustrations
  • Photographs
  • Drawings
  • Flowcharts
  • Line graphs
  • Bar graphs
  • Pie charts
  • Maps


  • Designed to add understanding of information that it difficult to convey with words
  • Must be clear, accurate, appropriate
  • Avoid mere decoration
  • KISS
  • Need a legend

Parts of a Graph (line)

Line Graphs

  • Should have two axes
  • Y changes as a function of X
  • Should show data collected at regular intervals (show trends)
  • Make curves most bold
  • Don’t vary line patterns, vary symbols (color on slides/posters)
  • Plot the length of intervals so that slopes are not too steep.

Bar Charts

  • One measurable axis
  • Interval doesn’t matter
  • Make bars wider than the spaces between them.
  • Use color only in slides/posters. Use conservative patterns for publication
  • Show significant differences by letter or asterisk above bars

Scatter Plots

  • Examines individual score on two variables.
  • Show relationship
  • Independent Variable on X (“as a function of”)

Recommendations for Figures (Part 1)

  • Read publishers recommendations regarding size, color, format!
  • Is it needed?
  • Do not have a title
  • Can it be understood at a glance?
  • Limit curves (3-5) or bars (6-8; 9-10 grouped)
  • Plot independent variable on X (time, concentration), dependent on Y (what happened?)
  • Avoid wasted space; legend on field

Recommendations (Part 2)

  • Label axes and show units of measure. Use tics and subtics, to not crowd with numbers
  • Position, size, shape, length, symbols, angle, color: all are cues. Use when appropriate, and avoid misuse.
  • Start scales at “0,” unless you make it clear (tic marks) that you are doing otherwise.
  • For a journal, type caption on a separate page so that the figure can be photographed and the type set separately.

Figure Legends

  • Must accompany Figures.
  • Should give pertinent, clarifying information
    • key to abbreviations
    • sample size
    • statistical results
    • a brief description of how the data were acquired
  • Should allow Table/Figure to stand alone
  • In the legend, both “Table” and “Figure” are spelled out completely

How to refer to a Table/Figure

  • Every table/figure must be referred to in the text
  • It is best to refer to them in parenthesis:
    • Germination rates were significantly higher after 24 hr water soak than in the control (Fig. 1) .
    • DNA sequence homologies for the purple gene from the four congeners (Table 1) show a strong similarity, differing at most by 4 base pairs.
    • Note: Fig., here is abbreviated. Not on headings, though.
  • Avoid sentences that only direct you to the table:
    • Table 1 shows the summary results for male and female height at Bates College.

A little more Info…

  • Figures and tables are numbered independently, in the sequence in which they are referred.
  • In a thesis or class paper, place them as near where you refer to them as possible
  • For manuscripts, follow publisher’s directions (historically, legends were are on a separate page)

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