I am submitting an SPIE journal article. In between references to figure 5 and figure 6, I reference figure 14 (which appears in a much further section) as an example of something specific. One of my reviewers has complained that it breaks the ordering of the figures. I could, of course, insert figure 14 after this first reference, and then back-reference it in the corresponding section, but I think that would be even more confusing for the reader.

Is there some standard preference for this kind of references? Or maybe should I avoid the early reference altogether?

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    Why not use the same figure twice, first as Figure 6 (perhaps with less detail) and again later as Figure 14? – JeffE Aug 7 '16 at 16:08
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    @JeffE: I don't think many reviewers encourage the reuse of figures that lightly. – Ébe Isaac Aug 7 '16 at 16:10
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    @JeffE: The discussion is about a journal article not a book; page limit is only another concern. Besides, the OP's concern -- the SPIE -- do have a strict page limit. – Ébe Isaac Aug 7 '16 at 16:19
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    @JeffE: Coming from a field with strict and tight page limits, showing any graphic (or actually, any kind of content) twice is out of the question in papers. But come to think of it, I would also perceive multiple depictions of the same figure in a book or other medium of unlimited length as odd. But maybe that is just my programmer-personality that naturally abhors any kind of code or resource duplication and would prefer a single "instance" that is referenced from various places at any time ;) – O. R. Mapper Aug 7 '16 at 17:33
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    @laika Of course. Which is why you tell the reader the difference between Figure 6 and Figure 14. – JeffE Aug 8 '16 at 12:06

Certainly, there are vastly different personal preferences among readers and authors alike. Unless you can establish a pattern that matches the preferences of the reviewers1, you will have to go with what you (and your co-authors, and others who you ask for advice) think makes most sense in the concrete case.

If you conclude that Figure 14 is best left where it is (between Figures 13 and 15), because e.g. Figure 14 is descussed in depth in a later section while the mention between Figures 5 and 6 is only a side note, it sounds correct to me to leave Figure 14 as Figure 14, even though it is mentioned earlier. (More concretely, it would sound extremely cumbersome to show Figure 14 early in the paper between Figures 5 and 6, and then, later on, where the figure is discussed in depth, force readers to constantly switch between pages while reading the text.)

In that case (if only to appease reviewers who think otherwise), it could be adviseable to explicitly acknowledge the side note character of the early mention of Figure 14:

This can also be seen in Figure 14, presented/discussed below in Section ... .

1: Note that I consider it at least somewhat ethically questionable to deviate from what might be most conductive to the readability/comprehensibility of the paper just to please a specific small set of reviewers (who might not think in terms of what supports the reader's mental model in the concrete case, but rather based upon "general formal criteria" such as "Are figures ordered by the order of their first mention?"). So, it is up to you whether to actually follow such a pattern.

  • And this exemplifies what I meant by symptom of a bad text structure. If this back and forth is justified, your text is not linear, which is always harder to understand. – Fábio Dias Aug 7 '16 at 12:35
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    @FábioDias: I think it's a good text structure to introduce the topic first (possibly while pointing outnsome of the concrete points to follow) and only then discuss things in-depth. – O. R. Mapper Aug 7 '16 at 12:41
  • I don't disagree. But is this the best way of doing this? For instance, one can create a new image, with the outline of several cases, in simplified form, to convey this "overview" information then a full version, with more detail, later. Even with space constraints, I would prefer this approach, because each image has a clear message. In extreme cases of space restriction, you can use the same, but then, by definition, the page turning problem is less relevant. – Fábio Dias Aug 7 '16 at 17:16
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    ... to the crucial parts of the user interface described in-depth below. Showing the graphic only in the introduction would introduce the inconvenience of frequent paginating in the detail description, as described in the answer. Duplicating the graphic would seem weird (as if trying to stretch space without adding new content, if there is unlimited space in the first place ...), and might also send readers on a hunt for differences (because of a possible assumption "certainly, no-one would show the same graphic twice"). And not mentioning the later graphic in the introduction will .. – O. R. Mapper Aug 7 '16 at 17:27
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    Thanks @O.R.Mapper. Your reply pretty much sumarizes my opinion. After discussing it with other co-authors we all think it's best to keep the reference to figure 14, just clarifying that it's from a different section to avoid confusion. – Victor Medina Aug 10 '16 at 12:30

If you mention a figure after fig 5, that figure is fig 6, by definition.

You are confusing your own mental order with the order in the paper, which are not the same. Your reviewer is correct, that is, at least for me, weird and indeed breaks the flow of the text. And it could be a symptom of bad text structure.

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    "Figures should be numbered in the order they appear" is a direct quote from many author guidelines (the emphasis is mine). A full-page figure could easily appear after a smaller figure though be referred to first (for example). – Chris H Aug 8 '16 at 8:12

As you stated that the related figure appears in a much later section refer the section instead of the figure like this

... as illustrated/explained in Section N ...

or something similar. To be general, it would be better to avoid mentioning the figure at all, but rather refer the concept of the section which is ahead.

This way, you don't break your ordering of figure references.

Referencing a section earlier in the topic is not too uncommon in literature. It is usually done at the beginning for an overview, so this won't be a bad practice. You may take a look at this sample SPIE journal for reference.

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    Downvoted. This would still be referring to the figures out of order, only using a more complicated syntax to avoid having the numerical labels appear our of order. If the figure is captioned "Figure 14", then you really should call if "Figure 14"( and point forward to section N). – JeffE Aug 7 '16 at 16:06
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    @JeffE: This isn't an ill advised practice. Kindly look again at the edit. – Ébe Isaac Aug 7 '16 at 16:46
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    I'm not saying it's an ill-advised practice. I'm saying it doesn't address OP's referee's objection. – JeffE Aug 7 '16 at 16:53
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    @JeffE: The referee doesn't want the OP to mess up the order of Figure referencing. By my answer, you are not referencing the figure, but the concept associated with the section the figure is contained in. To be clear: I mean, you may refer the section ahead but avoid referring the figure ahead. – Ébe Isaac Aug 7 '16 at 16:56
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    "the illustration provided in Section N" is a reference to a figure. – JeffE Aug 7 '16 at 16:59

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