Creating clear and informative image-based figures for scientific publications

Helena Jambor, Alberto Antonietti, Bradly Alicea, Tracy L. Audisio, Susann Auer, Vivek Bhardwaj, Steven J. Burgess, Iuliia Ferling, Małgorzata Anna Gazda, Luke H. Hoeppner, Vinodh Ilangovan, Hung Lo, Mischa Olson, Salem Yousef Mohamed, Sarvenaz Sarabipour, Aalok Varma, Kaivalya Walavalkar, Erin M. Wissink, Tracey L. Weissgerber

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Scientists routinely use images to display data. Readers often examine figures first; therefore, it is important that figures are accessible to a broad audience. Many resources discuss fraudulent image manipulation and technical specifications for image acquisition; however, data on the legibility and interpretability of images are scarce. We systematically examined these factors in non-blot images published in the top 15 journals in 3 fields; plant sciences, cell biology, and physiology (n = 580 papers). Common problems included missing scale bars, misplaced or poorly marked insets, images or labels that were not accessible to colorblind readers, and insufficient explanations of colors, labels, annotations, or the species and tissue or object depicted in the image. Papers that met all good practice criteria examined for all image-based figures were uncommon (physiology 16%, cell biology 12%, plant sciences 2%). We present detailed descriptions and visual examples to help scientists avoid common pitfalls when publishing images. Our recommendations address image magnification, scale information, insets, annotation, and color and may encourage discussion about quality standards for bioimage publishing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere3001161
JournalPLoS biology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Mar 31 2021

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Neuroscience
  • General Biochemistry, Genetics and Molecular Biology
  • General Immunology and Microbiology
  • General Agricultural and Biological Sciences


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