Lisa Moore, PhD, ISMPP CMPPTM, Senior Medical Writer, Ashfield Healthcare Communications

Using its simplest definition, an infographic is a visual representation of information or data.1 We are visual beings (~80% of learning is visual2) so infographics appeal to our inherent preference to learn by ‘seeing’ rather than to read information delivered to us in text-only format. Results from scientific research are traditionally communicated via manuscripts published by journals, congress presentations and specialist text books – lots and lots of complex information communicated in big chunks, often all at once. An infographic would not replace these methods of scientific communication but could be a companion to them – offering a bite- size introduction to a complex methodology (for example), or summarising the results of a phase III study in short, visually appealing, easy to remember ways.

The need for more infographics in scientific communications 
The use of infographics in the communication of scientific research is not a new thing but it is not used enough. We are in the digital age, more and more journals are moving towards being 100% online only,3 and most have open access options.3 Patients can research a medical condition via disease-specific websites or forums, and physicians can be notified almost in real-time when a new clinical trial has been listed on a register. All this means that results from scientific research have the potential to reach a much larger audience than when printed publications were the only source of information. Frequently, however, the method of presenting scientific information still primarily uses text or intricate and complex diagrams. Infographics, as a companion to traditional methods, may help to increase the understanding and retention of scientific concepts by this ‘bigger than ever’ audience.

How would a scientific infographic look?
A scientific infographic may be presented as a short sequence of simple graphs or images spanning just a page or two that summarises the results of a study, or may be a single figure on a poster or a webpage. The book by David McCandless4 provides examples of information of public significance such as ‘celestial impact’ and ‘tons of carbon emissions per year’, which if presented as detailed text and not as an infographic may not be as easily accessible to the layperson. There are now text books presenting pages and pages of just infographics on subjects such as human biology for use by students as a study aid. Journals are starting to use graphical abstracts – abstracts that provide a flow diagram or side-by-side images summarising the results of a study – thus encouraging the reader to read the full article. Another use of infographics could be pre-congress scientific announcements for symposia, sent out via email to those who have registered for the meeting.

In anything, however, there are always cons as well as pros. An infographic is only as good as the creator’s understanding of the detail – i.e. the interpretation of (even) scientific information can be subjective – for example, two people may interpret the information presented in the results of a clinical study report differently. If the infographic presents a summary or introduction to a bigger resource then a citation for that bigger resource should be provided with the infographic – this is not always the case, meaning that an individual may not be able to access the full detail if they want it. Infographics can be developed using free downloadable software and via a user’s existing software but the best infographics may require purchase of new, possible costly, software. If the infographic is an addition to a traditional means of communicating scientific data, then creation of the infographic adds time and possibly also adds cost during the process of getting the information out into the public domain. Another thing to consider are possible copyright and prior publication issues that publishing or presenting an infographic may cause − creators should be mindful of congress and/or journal guidelines on these points and should include reference citations where possible. An overview of the pros and cons (‘yes’ versus ‘no’) of using infographics in scientific communication is provided in figure 1.

infographic-figure-1

 

In summary
By presenting information in a visual way, infographics appeal to our inherent preference to learn by ‘seeing’. Infographics, as a companion to traditional methods of scientific communication, could help to increase the understanding and retention of scientific concepts.

References

  1. Oxford English dictionary
  2. Jerome Bruner (New York University)
  3. Fallows J, Thoman P. The ‘ins and outs’ of open access: practical considerations for publication professionals. Presented at the ISMPP meeting, May 23, 2012
  4. McCandless D. Information is beautiful. Collins Press. 2012