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Should a figure/table go before or after the first paragraph that references it in an academic paper? I cannot find a definitive answer on this. The general advice is to place the figure/table as close to the reference as possible.

  • It doesn't matter - chances are the journal will mess with the formatting anyway. Ideally, figures and tables are on the same page as the reference and (field-dependent?) are put at the top of the page rather than in-line. – Moriarty Feb 4 '15 at 14:24
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    @Moriarty Not necessarily: in some fields, many conferences and journals do not reformat, so long as the author complies with the general guidelines. – jakebeal Feb 4 '15 at 15:57
  • @jakebeal So, the typesetter is completely excluded? – user2768 Feb 5 at 12:27
  • @user2768 Sure: an organization can run much more cheaply if it makes the authors do their own typesetting and just checks for compliance. – jakebeal Feb 5 at 14:52
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    @jakebeal I do my own typesetting, then the typesetter adds mistakes... – user2768 Feb 5 at 15:05
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Assuming that you are laying things out yourself, as opposed to working with one of the journals that will do it for you, think about the layout from the perspective of a reader: if you are reading text and looking at a figure, it's a pain to be flipping back and forth. Thus, ideally, you want both text and figure to be on the same page. Where, exactly, on the same page is not so important. Sometimes this will be specified by the layout, and in many cases it is stylistically preferred to have figures above text on a page (this is standard IEEE style, for example).

Sometimes, however, it is either awkward or impossible to get them on the same page. If this is the case, then, in my opinion, it's slightly better to have the figure come after the first reference in the text. Figures draw the attention, and if you have the figure before the first mention in text, then it can interfere with your narrative.

This is a fairly weak constraint, however, and I often violate it myself when there are overriding reasons of paper narrative to put the figure in front instead, such as:

  1. Spreading out figures through the text, so that you have less pure-text pages.
  2. Getting a figure onto the first page of a paper, so that it can serve as a visual "icon" for the paper. Example: in this paper, the figure on page 1 is not referenced until page 2.

Most of this, however, is stylistic preferences, and should not be taken as hard constraints unless the particular venue that you are submitting to provides explicit specification.

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There is no hard and fast rule. This reference says:

According to the APA (2002), the “typesetter lays out tables and figures closest to where they are first mentioned” (p. 155).

I do not have the APA style guide to confirm. The author, as opposed to the typesetter, guidelines for APA style require the figures to go after the references and hence nowhere near where they are referenced. To the extent that LaTeX typesets things "correctly" figures and tables (or in LaTeX terminology floats) are placed as soon as possible (while preserving the layout) following the first call out. LaTeX will never place a float before the call out. I am not sure if this is a technical limitation or a stylistic limitation.

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    There are options in LaTeX to put the float "here", at the "bottom", or "top" of a page or on a "page" of its own. – Brian Borchers Feb 4 '15 at 14:59
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    The LaTeX placement is a technical choice (not a limitation per se) about how its typesetting behaves. – jakebeal Feb 4 '15 at 15:58
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Journals usually have their own preferences on this, which can be found in their 'Instructions to authors' document.

The most common preference I have found is for figures to be at the top or bottom of pages, ideally on the same page as where it is first referenced. Rare exceptions to this rule occur when the figure is being actively used in a paragraph, for example in a mathematical proof, in which case the figures are much like equations and are reasonably placed exactly where they are used.

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