Scientific Communication for Natural Resource Professionals

Chapter 7: Design of Tables and Figures for Display of Scientific Data

Roger D. Moon


Tables and figures are indispensable in empirical science. Researchers collect, organize, and condense raw observations, and use tables and figures to help form mental images and guide analysis. This process usually continues through several iterations until relevant “results” can be communicated. Tables and figures are more than accessories or adornments. They can convey complex information accessibly, including methods and resulting evidence, whereas the accompanying narrative frames the questions and guides the viewer to logical conclusions. Few scientists can sit down and construct an effective table or figure in one attempt. Rather, successive drafts are revised to focus content and aid understanding. Investigators often change formats during analysis and writing in search of better ways to convey intended points.

Every scientific journal has instructions for prospective authors. These instructions include recommendations about table and figure construction; most conform with the Council of Biology Editors style manual (CBE Style Manual Committee 1994). There are only a few options for table layouts; Ehrenberg (1977), Valiela (2001), and Day and Gastel (2006) offer examples, guidelines, and humorous advice. In contrast, there is an enormous array of ways to graph quantitative data, depending on its logical structure. Modern graphic forms were developed by Tukey (1977) and Cleveland (1994), and Jacoby (1997, 1998) and Robbins (2005) review commonly used techniques. Finally, Edward Tufte’s (1983, 1997) monographs on graphic design have been highly influential and should be read and reread for ideas and inspiration.

The goal of this chapter is to offer guidance to natural resource professionals and other scientists on how to design tables and figures for use in scientific communication. I offer general guidelines for the construction of effective, efficient, and visually appealing tables and figures. General principles of graphical design extend across all disciplines and have not changed substantially in the past two decades. However, a few new techniques have been developed for presenting complex data sets, and computer software and output devices have eased the tedium of constructing and revising tables and figures. For brevity, I will refer to producers of tables and figures as “authors,” receivers as “readers,” and venues as “journals.” Unless noted otherwise, the roles and venues for scientific communication should be understood to include all speakers, listeners, and viewers in other venues as well.