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Sometimes I see articles, even high-quality ones, use illustrations (e.g. imagine a simple Powerpoint depiction of a certain process).

I'm now writing my thesis and found some interesting illustrations that I would like to use in the Definitions section of my thesis. However, I'm not quite sure if that would turn out to be beneficial:

  • pro: It would break up the wall of text a bit and provide a more intuitive way of grasping a definition.

  • con: My supervisor (who probably would not bother to read the whole section anyway) glances over it and doesn’t like illustrations and marks me down.

I don't really want to ask my supervisor about this, since he is a highly decorated senior professor and head of faculty. I'd rather use my “capital” wisely on methodological questions.

What is your view on that?

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  • 32
    con: supervisor […] glances over it and doesn't like graphs and marks me down – Does that not apply to any possible decision of your thesis including not using graphics?
    – Wrzlprmft
    Feb 13, 2023 at 13:17
  • 21
    Not the answer to your question. But, your relationship to your supervisor seems strained. If there is any way you can improve it, it might be worthwhile.
    – Boba Fit
    Feb 13, 2023 at 15:23
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    Would you have the right to use these illustrations in a published work?
    – gidds
    Feb 13, 2023 at 20:24
  • 19
    What area is your masters in? It would generally be odd to have pictures in a philosophy thesis. In engineering though it would generally be odd not to have pictures and diagrams.
    – Graham
    Feb 14, 2023 at 1:09
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    The advisor is called advisor for a reason. His literal job is to aid you in writing the thesis, including stylistic decisions. It doesn't matter if he is the reincarnation of Einstein himself, there should be no such thing as "capital" on (reasonable) questions you can ask. (If this is not the case for you, something is wrong.)
    – Neinstein
    Feb 14, 2023 at 14:28

10 Answers 10

87

If it is like putting a picture of a film star next to an article about them, then you should not do it.

If they are merely "interesting illustrations" to "break up the wall of text", then you should probably not use them.

If they are positively useful, show things that cannot be shown in text, or make something much clearer than text, then you should use them.

(Edited to add: As others have said, if you want to use an illustration from someone else's publication, you need to think about copyright. And in many cases, it is better to make your own illustrations.)

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    Absolutely (third paragraph), and there's nothing "unprofessional" about it. Feb 13, 2023 at 14:09
  • Agreed. Any academic output of yours could be seen as an attempt to convey information, so borrow from Teaching: the VARK model says there are 4 modalities by which different people most effectively learn (absorb that information): Visual (pictures, charts, diagrams etc.), Auditory (listening to a speaker), Reading (written text), Kinesthetic (movement, doing) {{others identify more}}. A thesis can't do A or K, but could add V to the already existing R if it conveys information - cover more bases. Even if duplicating the text - some readers will find V easier/quicker to absorb than R.
    – frIT
    Feb 14, 2023 at 13:43
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    @frIT FYI VARK applying to learners has been discredited. Feb 14, 2023 at 18:22
  • 7
    @OwenReynolds, technically what has been discredited is learning styles. It is useful to utilize multiple modes of teaching to help reinforce the material and because it is hard to tell a priori what is the optimal way to teach. However, studies have repeatedly shown that individuals don't have inherent learning styles (theatlantic.com/science/archive/2018/04/…)
    – Jonathon
    Feb 14, 2023 at 19:37
  • @Jonathon thanks for clarifying what I meant with "cover more bases" - 600 characters is a bit limiting sometimes when a longer explanation or even some pictures may be needed.
    – frIT
    Feb 16, 2023 at 10:27
38

I must push back on the frame of your question: I think you should ask this question of your advisor for the following reasons:

First, learning to write an academic paper or thesis is part of what you are there to learn as a Master's candidate, and part of what your advisor is there to teach you.

Second, as you yourself point out, your advisor is the person (or one of the few people) to be evaluating your work. It is fine to cast a wide net for advice when developing your overall style as an academic writer. But it would be foolish to take our advice over your advisor's advice when you are writing a paper for the narrow audience of your advisor and/or your committee.

That said: The valid use of drawings, figures, diagrams, plots, illustrations, etc is to convey information efficiently and effectively. They can also be beautiful in their own right; placed strategically to break up text, etc. But if they are not there to convey information, they should probably not be there.

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    Second this - learning to ask questions of (and, question, discuss things with, and debate with) highly decorated professors is something you should practice - it's an essential skill for an existence in academia. Try not to ask poorly researched or open ended questions (so, do a bit of reading, say what you've tried or what you think to be correct) and you should be fine.
    – lupe
    Feb 14, 2023 at 11:32
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    Third: the advisor is called advisor for a reason. His literal job is to aid OP on writing the thesis.
    – Neinstein
    Feb 14, 2023 at 14:25
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    Strong +1 to this answer. I’d urge OP to reconsider their advisor’s feedback carefully: Is it really true that the he “doesn’t like illustrations” (an extreme position that very few academics would agree with), or did he just not think the particular illustrations the OP had used were appropriate? Learning when and how to use illustrations/figures in academic writing is part of what OP should be learning in their thesis.
    – PLL
    Feb 15, 2023 at 12:47
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Textbooks often have pictures. For example Munkres' Topology:

enter image description here

enter image description here

enter image description here

Consult textbooks and papers related to your masters topic for what a "professional" illustration looks like.

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    Munkres Topology brings back very happy memories. Feb 14, 2023 at 2:04
  • A thesis is not, and should not be written as, a textbook.
    – dotancohen
    Feb 15, 2023 at 10:21
  • @dotancohen The first part of your comment is salient, but I would question the second part. There are many reasons to write a master's thesis in a fashion akin to thesis. Feb 15, 2023 at 10:56
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    @dotancohen If it was a sandwich thesis then sure, don't write it as a textbook. If it is a monograph on a single subject then it should be something like a short textbook.
    – Daron
    Feb 15, 2023 at 14:20
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he is a highly decorated senior professor and head of faculty

Highly decorated senior professors and heads of faculty are not demi-gods.

They are human like everyone else and can be great people or assholes. This is how you should assess them and act accordingly. Since he is your advisor he has a duty to help you (he does not need a PhD candidate like someone just starting).

I'm now writing my thesis and found some interesting illustrations

Since you wrote an introduction, its readers will benefit from a crisp, helpful picture (which as Napoleon put it, is better than 100 PowerPoint bullets).

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There is something in OP which I don't think the existing answers address.

I'm now writing my thesis and found some interesting illustrations that I would like to use [...]

The other answers talk about the benefits of having figures, etc., in your thesis, but these should be figures that you create yourself. There are several drawbacks to adding illustrations that you merely found.

  • You will probably need to get permission to do this (unless the image comes with a CC or similarly permissive licence).
  • You will certainly need to attribute the image (even if the original creator does not require this, the presumption is that anything in your thesis is your own work unless specified not to be, and you must not appear to take credit).
  • Since they are not your own work, they will not get credit and so can't really benefit you - but they could still harm you if your supervisor/examiner thinks they are inappropriate.

So for these reasons, I would not use them. But if you can create your own (and I mean create, not just redraw) images that are helpful to the reader, then by all means do so.

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    "Since they are not your own work, they will not get credit and so can't really benefit you" I disagree. Curating a good illustration is actual valuable work, so I would count it positively. And more subjectively, if the illustration helps the explanation, the whole thing will be marked up.
    – Davidmh
    Feb 15, 2023 at 8:01
  • A good third party drawing is just as valuable as a good quote.
    – Michael
    Feb 15, 2023 at 9:46
  • Yes, perhaps what I said was too strong. But the credit you can get for including a third-party image is going to be insignificant compared to the credit for comparable original content. Feb 15, 2023 at 13:07
  • Use in an academic publication is for sure absolutely covered by fair use. So attribution; yes, no matter the license. Permission; not necessary, as long as it exists in the public domain already.
    – Stian
    Feb 16, 2023 at 7:22
7

I would say a thesis is making an argument, with evidence. The question is: do the illustrations help to build the argument?

If they are decoration, like in a magazine, clearly not. If the text can be fully understood without them, like in an online news story which the publication requires to have an illustration, even if it's a stock photo, then the photo isn't adding anything.

Your reader does not need images to help them read the piece, because you can assume they are able to read at a good standard, and your piece does not need to sell itself on a newsstand, bookstore or online clickbait.

But if the argument is aided by the image, then maybe there is a case to include them. A diagram or graph presents information in a different way to text, and that would be absolutely fine IMHO. A picture of an experimental setup or historical source material may help the reader understand the context better. A cartoon could make a point in an ironic way that the text could not do. Think about what the purpose of each image is, and what you are saying with it.

In general, though, I would be sparing in using images. The reader is there to read, not to view a photo album. It is hard to make a good argument with primarily images ('eye of the beholder' and all that). Also, you may run into copyright and plagiarism issues if too much of the content is not your own.

Obviously there are some fields which are very graphical - eg art or fashion - where your source material is all image-based and you have to use that material. For those different expectations might apply.

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    There is still a tendency in academia to think that writing is somehow more professional if it uses long words, long sentences, latinisms, and no illustrations. I remember trying to break the mould by using "I" and "you" and being told off for it. It's easy to make confused muddled thinking sound more rigorous by using lots of jargon: the reason is that if the reader can't understand what you're saying, they might give you the benefit of the doubt. Try to avoid that temptation: go for maximum clarity, using pictures if they help to convey the message. Feb 16, 2023 at 15:28
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    At the end of the day you're trying to communicate something. If you make your text more complicated for no reason, you're making the task harder for the reader. If you write your text in an annoying font, likewise. If the pictures help communicate, then great. If they just waste the reader's time and the only result is the library has to buy more shelves, perhaps they can be omitted. That said, a pleasing page design can sometimes assist in reading of the text - which aids in getting your message across. Feb 16, 2023 at 22:14
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There's a difference here that I think needs to be drawn between "illustrations" and "diagrams".

Diagrams are technical drawings that add useful information to your thesis that is better conveyed visually than textually. I would also include charts in this category. Include as many of these as you need, they're a great way to effectively convey information.

Illustrations, however, tend to be less textual and more descriptive. So, you might show an illustration of what a design might look like in context. Now, whether you include these or not is largely dependent on what your thesis is. If you're doing a design-based course like Architecture or Fashion, then sure, include illustrations. Other than that, I probably wouldn't, except perhaps as an appendix if you really want to.

The key difference here is whether you're actually adding information to the paper or merely illustrating it in a pretty fashion.


That being said, it's your thesis. You're not submitting it for publication to a journal so sans explicit instructions from the university to the contrary, you're free to make stylistic decisions to suit yourself. I, for one, chose to break my dissertation into chapters and put amusing, albeit relevant, epigraphs at the start of each. Not very "professional", I'll admit, but it made the whole thing a bit nicer to read and I liked them. No reasonable professor is going to care about a stylistic choice here or there, they're only going to care about the content. Within reason of course.

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    I wouldn't even call your epigraphs (or the illustrations) unprofessional---plenty of "serious" professional books do that too!
    – Matt
    Feb 15, 2023 at 1:40
  • @Matt - To be clear, I never said they were unprofessional, just that they're not to the strictest of interpretations (read stick up the butt) professional. I think they sit in the middle ground and that's fine Feb 15, 2023 at 10:27
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The other answers make good points, but some textbooks also have (a few) pictures that are not strictly related to the text, often at the beginning of chapters. If done with style, this can be fine.

But you are not a textbook author and your thesis is not a textbook. It is also your first major article, so you may not have the judgement to know what is appropriate and what is not. Also, a thesis is a different type of document.

Nevertheless, you might consider adding a personal touch, for example in the dedication or perhaps even in the introduction. But if you are really worried that your supervisor might not like it, you should probably leave it out. Even if they don't have a problem with it, you run the risk of always thinking about whether it might have been a problem and contributed to the grade and other doubts.

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I think that some of the previous answers have tried to be fair and still protective of you.

But maybe they miss the point of why you are applying the illustrations - and this is no surprise as all you say is that they are in the Definitions section of the thesis.

As I read it, you may be introducing illustrations to make it easier for the general reader in your subject - as opposed to those actively researching in a small field within it - to quickly "get" the basic concepts that you are introducing at the start of the thesis. And there is no doubt about it but a picture is worth a thousand words in getting many concepts. In physical sciences, schematic diagrams are often used to put across processes that are in reality much more detailed and complex though the latter aspects are simply to make the process more effective.

I don't see much wrong in this exercise as long as your diagrams are expressly labelled as schematics and the added complexities are referred to at least in the accompanying text.

But you really must discuss your purpose with these illustrations with your supervisor so that he understands why you are putting these in your Definitions section. Noting that the attention span of supervisors is quite short, you would be well advised to have a short and simple phrasing prepared before you present your reason for these graphics.

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Depends from your filed of study. Literature (for example) do not use many pictures. Physics (again, for example as field) believe that "a picture is value 1000 words".

My personal opinion: pictures that explains the concepts/ideas/tests/methodology(etc.) are very welcome as are capable to say something that may be difficult to express in words. However every picture that you add in your manuscript should be properly described.

This is what I recommend to my students when they write their thesis with me: https://francescolelli.info/thesis/simple-writing-rules-that-can-improve-the-quality-of-your-thesis/

The second bullet talks about how to describe pictures and tables.

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