My professors always point out that figures only serve as a supplement to the results. They should not be the main star of the results/discussion section. The writer must be able to articulate the main results and only point to the figures as a supplement.

Well, this is all good and clear until I found myself unable to articulate what I wanted to say. I am doing work on computer simulations and it is quite normal that figures should be part of the results/discussion part of the paper.

How should I make my results be the "star" of the paper, and not just point the readers to the figures and interpret them thoroughly?

  • 2
    I am not sure what sort of figures you are talking about, nor what academic field you are in, but I think your professors are wrong - or, at least, not entirely correct. A really good figure can, indeed, be the star of the paper. Look at, e.g the Menard map of Napoleon's campaign. Or look at any relatively complex statistical graphic.
    – Peter Flom
    Jan 26, 2016 at 19:06
  • I am in Information Science/Mathematical Informatics. Yeah, I also agree that sometimes the figure tells everything, especially if you provide a detailed and right interpretation. But surely, the book on Scientific Writing and Communication can't be wrong either. It tells us to point to the figure to supplement, not to let it be the results entirely.
    – cgo
    Jan 26, 2016 at 19:10
  • Why can't it be wrong? OK, a figure can't be the entire results section. But it surely can be the star of the results section. The text of the results could be simply an explanation of the figure. I have seen this in many papers.
    – Peter Flom
    Jan 26, 2016 at 19:12
  • Your figures are there to summarize your data. If you have 1,000 data points, no one is going to read through all 1,000 data points. At the same time, the figure needs to be able to stand on it's own, so you represent your data visually, the parameters in axes, legends, etc., and the concepts and working conditions in the descriptive caption. Basically, if you went to a colleague and handed him one of your figures, could he interpret what your result was (without adding your entire results to the caption)? Try reading some journals in your field, see how they write up their results.
    – CKM
    Jan 26, 2016 at 19:18
  • Why not look at a bunch of well-regarded papers in your field to use them as a guide?
    – Kimball
    Jan 27, 2016 at 2:40

1 Answer 1


I believe that I strongly disagree with your professor. I can barely imagine writing a results section that is not filled with figures, there to compactly present critical, graphically summarized information about the results. In fact, one of my key early triage steps in reviewing a paper is to flip to the results section and see if there are any figures: if there are no figures, then it is very likely to have insubstantial results. Now, this isn't always the case---some papers have only theorems as results (though figures often help explain such theorems), and some have only a few key numbers in a table (though is a table a figure?)---usually, however, no figures means not much in the way of results to present.

I think that it is also a mistake to divide figures from prose and try to decide which is the "star" of a results section. In a well-written paper, they serve complementary purposes:

  • Figures are better for presenting numerical relationships, non-linear structures, and high-density data.
  • Prose is better for presentation of isolated or non-visual elements, directing the reader's attention to the most important aspects of the results, and explaining the significance and relationship of the results to one another and to the larger scientific investigation.

These two can and almost always must play together harmoniously in order to effectively present a scientific work.

For a lovely introduction to what makes an effective figure and a good source of inspiration for your own work, I would suggest reading Tufte's "Visual Display of Quantitative Information," a classic work on data visualization.

  • Agree. Pithy answer is "A picture is worth a thousand words". Apr 8, 2016 at 16:29

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