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Preparing Figures for Publication

The figures in your publication are the first thing people look at (maybe second to the title and abstract if they go through pubmed) and a great opportunity to make a good impression and entice your reader. The reader assumes you show your best result of a series of experiments so make sure your gels are equally loaded, sections are intact and evenly exposed, tissues devoid of artifacts, etc. Before you get started preparing the figures, check the instructions to authors for your journal of choice. Frequently you need 300 dpi uncompressed for color or gray-scale figures and color figures need to be in the appropriate color space.

The Problem:

Your group leader does not like the figures your prepare for publication.

The Solution:

Consider a few basic rules as outlined below.


The figure has to convey the story. Try not to dilute information by taking additional information to the supplement. Use logarithmic axes and discontinuous axis only if you carefully considered alternatives. Label all axes. Use size bars.


Crop to the relevant area, properly rotated! Font > 6 pt; Line > 1 pt. Reduce "non-information ink" (avoid excessive labeling, boxes, backgrounds, patterns). Use compatible arrows and fonts.


Re-sampling figures with insufficient resolution (artificially increasing image size in pixels).
Non-linear editing (changing gamma or introducing clipping).
The figure is only complete with a figure legend. Be sure to include enough information so that the reader will understand the figure without having to go back to the text. If you are unsure if your figure is suitable, pull some decent papers and check how others display their data.


Instructions to authors - JCB, PNAS, Nature. Nature guide for digital images. Managing digital images (JCB article); preparation of figures in RGB vs. CMYK (JCB article).


"A picture shows me at a glance what it takes dozens of pages of a book to expound."  - Ivan Turgenev (in Fathers and Sons, 1862)

Figure 1: Figures about figures. A) Bad. B) Good.

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