A few months ago I started collecting papers that contain figures I think convey information in a very efficient manner (i.e., figures that I think are very well illustrated and that should serve as examples of how they should be designed).

Now, because I am a huge data-vis geek, I have been thinking about opening a page on my website in which I talk about how I think figures should be designed and which principles I expect students/coauthors/general public to follow when illustrating data. Consequently, I am inclined towards including some of those amazing figures I have been collecting and talking about them (i.e., why they are efficient and well designed). More controversially, perhaps, is the fact that I also plan to include some figures that I believe were terribly designed and explain in which ways they fail (some of those badly designed figures are actually mine).

While I will seek the adequate rights to post them on my blog (e.g., through RightsLink for Elsevier journals), I would like to hear about the morality of this practice, particularly due to the fact that I will negatively criticize other authors' work.

Is there any moral (or even legal) problem in criticizing other people's figures on my website? Should I expect any sort of retaliation if I decide to do that? I understand that this is largely dependent on the tone I employ, but I will make every effort to be as technical and objective as possible.

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    A solution to the problem of criticizing other people's figures might be to design the bad figures yourself with arbitrary data. This way you won't hurt anybody's feelings. Jan 23, 2017 at 0:53
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    @DavidZwicker Can you turn your comment into an answer so that I can vote it up?
    – Mad Jack
    Jan 23, 2017 at 2:17
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    Some people might voluntarily provide figures they have made for you to critique. Jan 23, 2017 at 4:56
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    One shall publish data for the sole purpose of being criticized. Otherwise what would be the point in scientific publishing?
    – polfosol
    Jan 23, 2017 at 11:28
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    Generating your own bad graphs to criticize seems to me like it has no where near the power of illustrating issues on real graphs.
    – Jeff
    Jan 23, 2017 at 19:23

6 Answers 6


I can't even imagine a situation in which criticizing published academic materials on their merits would be wrong or immoral.

How would it be different from criticizing someone's selection of an econometric or statistical model to use on their data? This happens constantly in academic literature, and in fact is crucial to the process of research. The way data is conveyed to others through graphs is no less important than model selection, and both can be used to deceive or obscure.

So as long as you cover two bases:

  1. Avoid ad hominem attacks, as you should in all sorts of reviewing, and
  2. Follow any copyright rules the publishers impose,

Not only is there nothing wrong with doing it, I would argue that as an academic and data viz expert, you should do it. As for someone taking offense at your criticism? Well, as long as you're professionally criticizing its merits and avoiding problem number 1 from above then it's you who are in the right, and the one taking offense who is in the wrong.

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    The difficulty would be convincing those whose work you criticise thatyou're not just making an aesthetic judgement.
    – Chris H
    Jan 23, 2017 at 9:29
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    @ChrisH Dataviz may be new relative to most fields, but it's got enough substance to it to have gone well beyond mere aesthetics. I don't think this has penetrated most of academia though, and is more the realm of data scientists at the moment. That should definitely be something we try to change.
    – Jeff
    Jan 23, 2017 at 9:37
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    I didn't say convincing me, I said convincing those whose figures you're looking at. Online criticism from an upstart may not help your own position. Related experience: trying to convince people to use colourmaps that work for colourblind people (or B&W reproduction) and that don't have arbitary discontinuities is often treated as an aesthetic issue.
    – Chris H
    Jan 23, 2017 at 9:44
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    @ChrisH It is a problem (says your typographer). How to overcome it? Collect examples where poor typography, dataviz, English grammar or whatever is not just cumbersome; rather it's invalidating the work, or even, changing its meaning. These are the points where you have to convince people you're not just a XYZ-nazi. Oh btw, xkcd.com/1184
    – yo'
    Jan 23, 2017 at 21:29
  • In some jurisdictions (such as the United States), you may have a legal right to copy the figures for the purpose of commentary, without regard to any copyright rules the publishers purport to impose. Jan 24, 2017 at 2:39

I am not even going to address morality, as that can be a minefield.

Legality can hinge upon where you live. In the USA free speech/free expression would allow for criticism of others works, but be aware that this is a double edged sword.

I would be careful about how you go about picking apart visualized data by others. Be very sure to only go about analyzing the structure/what has been shown, and not to slander the person who created the data visualization.

The thing is, everyone will offend someone somewhere, somehow, sometime. The important thing is that we try to keep the amount of offenses to a minimum. The best way to do this in my opinion, would be that make sure to state that your preferences are just that, preferences.

When we start calling our opinions facts, we start running into problems. I have first hand experience in this, being one with Asperger's Syndrome. I have delusions of "my opinion is the only opinion" thing... and it does not go over well. (and is something I am constantly working on)

  • Definitely. The freedom of opinion is very fundamental. (It's not even a matter of how opinions are phrased so much as the fact that there is a fundamental difference between a FACT and an OPINION. Not everyone has sufficiently high sanity or skill to recognize this difference.)
    – Wildcard
    Jan 23, 2017 at 9:23
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    The thing is, dataviz isn't just "preferences". It's a field complete with experts, published work, and core tenants. I might even go so far as to say its subjective elements are very similar to the subjective elements of empirical research, such as control variables and model selection. Unfortunately I think it's common for academics to be entirely unaware of this.
    – Jeff
    Jan 23, 2017 at 9:43
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    @Jeff I will have to look into dataviz more then. I was going more on the line "how I think figures should be designed." Jan 23, 2017 at 11:35

Not a good idea. You may mean well but you may offend others, irrespective of the tone or how constructive your criticism is meant to be. People from different cultures react in different ways to criticism, and there is little to no upside in even annoying one person. In addition, if the figures are copyrighted you might get some flak.

It is infinitely better to highlight outstanding examples.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – ff524
    Jan 23, 2017 at 15:08
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    This sounds silly to me. We should stop all criticisms because some culture might be offended? That sounds like an argument to end all science. Jan 23, 2017 at 21:50
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    @ff524 I wasn't discussing anything, I was referring to the original question in my comment. I was commenting on a possible flaw it has. Jan 23, 2017 at 23:35

On such a website showing figures and analyzing in how far they are suitable for conveying information, one should stick to the rules of scientific publication.

Things to keep in mind:

  1. Not criticize a persons work, but the work itself.
  2. Formulate the criticism in a neutral way.

In a research paper you wouldn't say "the authors of ... [ref] were unable to produce sufficiently accurate results", but rather "Those results[ref] are accurate within the range of ....".

I would say the same holds true for showing the pictures. When creating this site always think about if it would go through a peer review process of a scientific journal.

Having a list of "bad pictures" would definitely not pass, but providing a model for some criterion and showing two examples, where one meets the criterion and the other does not, is perfectly fine and probably even useful.

  • There is only one thing I have an issue with in this answer which is the fact that a personal website or blog is just that, a personal page. Why should a personal page be at the same level of a peer-reviewed work? We do not use the same formalities we use in full emails or hand written letters when we use instant messaging or text messages. Also, criticize in a neutral way? I think we have all gone soft. Jan 23, 2017 at 18:26
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    I particularly liked the idea of providing desirable characteristics and using the examples to illustrate what "fits" and "do not fit" the criteria. I think this may be one of the ways to minimize harm without removing essence from the idea (e.g., showing that badly designed figures can get published but may be confusing).
    – user63725
    Jan 23, 2017 at 18:32
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    @NZKshatriya I completely agree if it really was a personal website. But if that website clearly links to academic profile of the questioner, it is not personal anymore. As a scientist you carry a lot more responsibility in the surroundings of your research. So while you can still post any arbitrary junk on facebook about your last holiday, you cannot do that with opinions close to your research work. Jan 23, 2017 at 18:33
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    @NZKshatriya Even if a Biologist created a personal website about some Archaeology I would expect this to meet certain criteria, or else I would be tempted to question his quality as a reseacher in Biology as well. So if the questioner wants to prevent that from happening, he could mind my opinion on the issue, given in the answer. Jan 23, 2017 at 18:51
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    @NZKshatriya: "simply discussing visualizations of data, and not actual research topics/projects" - visualization of data is an actual research topic. "based upon his views on how data should be presented in visuals" - as far as I gathered, these views are probably tightly linked to research results about data visualization. Jan 23, 2017 at 18:57

Yous should really ask yourself what do you gain here by using authentic data. I firmly believe you have every right to cite someones work and criticize what's wrong in it. But in context of a blog, what do you really gain from it?

You could just make models based on real life examples. And, if you want to keep the authenticity, every article can end up with:

Example in this article was inspired by real data in insert doi here

But in that case make sure you actually model your own example, copying and editing the data would certainly NOT be OK. At the same time, make sure the problem you illustrate is still the same as in the original.

Yeah, it really boils to gain vs possible loss. Even if you just get some pissed email, you'll have to ask if it was worth it for a blog article.

  • Pissed off email can be amusing. they dislike what you say so much, that they are going to waste time they could spend being productive, in order to pay attention to you, the subject of their ire. Ironic isn't it? Jan 23, 2017 at 18:49
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    "Here's a bad graph that you could hypothetically make, let's fix it up" seems to me a far weaker statement than "Here's a real life bad example that was published, let's fix it up."
    – Jeff
    Jan 23, 2017 at 19:28
  • @Jeff This is why I suggested making fake example modeled by real example. Applying the abstract concepts learnt on the fake example to the real example is a nice exercise for the student. Jan 23, 2017 at 23:33
  • David Zwicker already said it all in a comment. If you could include his comment I think this should be the accepted answer. Jan 24, 2017 at 9:36
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    @Jeff The argument would probably go "All made-up examples are based on some bad real life cases. It really happened that way or in a very similar way. So let's fix it up." Jan 24, 2017 at 9:37

As I would in any situation with moral ambiguity, I'd apply the golden rule: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.

If you would not want others to do it you, then do not do it to others yourself.

On top of which, the fact that you're having moral qualms about it already highlights that it might be something you should avoid.

All this being said, I'm all for "teachable moments."

I would use a blanket "views expressed" disclaimer and keep it as professional as possible about the figures themselves, only.

Before we begin—a little disclaimer…   Any statements made, views expressed, or opinions given represent my personal views and opinions alone.   None of these statements, views, or opinions given by me (nor any of the information appearing on these slides) are endorsed by, nor do they necessarily reflect, the opinions of the University of Alaska, UAA, nor any other colleges or organizations affiliated with these institutions.

The Hidden Costs of Outsourcing: Why Alaska Needs its Own Law School, trwatts.

What do you think?

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    "Do unto others as you would have others do unto you." - this just doesn't work. I don't mind criticism, even harsh one. Following this rule, I almost lost some teeth. Jan 23, 2017 at 11:01
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    "the fact that you're having moral qualms about it" - frankly, "Is there any moral (or even legal) problem in criticizing other people's figures on my website? Should I expect any sort of retaliation if I decide to do that?" reads to me like the OP rather has no moral qualms about it, and is thus asking the community whether anyone else could have any moral qualms that might cause retaliatory behaviour. Jan 23, 2017 at 12:11
  • @O.R.Mapper. I see what you mean. Jan 23, 2017 at 12:27
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    Just noticed something. This "answer" ends with a question. Therefore this is not an answer is it? Jan 23, 2017 at 17:49
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    @TeacherKSHuang Certainly not, because I do not remember assaulting anyone's teeth, so this doesn't qualify for tooth for a tooth case. Jan 23, 2017 at 23:36

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