Science of SciComm: A case for incorporating science art into scientific publications

Post by Caroline Rosinski

How do we make our science engaging and accessible to our target audience? This has been the underlying question of many of our discussions this semester in the course Science of Science Communication.

An emerging trend in formal scientific literature publications is the integration of science art into figures. This is part of a broader effort to make science more accessible and engaging for a variety of audiences (Ross-Hellauer et al. 2020). Scientists are increasingly approaching artists to collaborate on art for public engagement (Nature Editorial 2021), and the success of these efforts seems to be bringing art to the scientific publication space as well.

A diagram showing the decision-making process for if a fishing boat goes out to sea and if they take steps to minimize shark bycatch.
Figure 1. A conceptual figure from Booth et al. (2020). These figures are often designed to depict ecological or decision-making processes, or to distill a large amount of data from multiple other figures into a more easily digestible summary. They provide a way for readers to get clear takeaways from a piece of scientific literature.

Many journals now offer illustrator services, a testament to their growing popularity (e.g., Elsevier Illustration Services). Science art figures could be conceptual figures that show processes or summarize data in a less numerically intensive way (Figure 1) or ones that incorporate science art alongside traditional graphs (Figure 2). In either case, artistic figures are typically included to either enhance readability and understanding of the data or to emphasize key takeaways of the research.

Four box plots showing trends in Pacific salmon species, with a small artistic rendering above each plot panel depicting the aspect of fisheries the plot is explaining.
Figure 2. A figure from Oke et al. (2020) that incorporates science art alongside traditional scientific graphs. The science art helps to clarify what each graph is showing—panel A represents changes in spawning output of fish, B represents nutrient transport, C represents economic value of the fishery, and D represents nutrition and food security. Besides making this figure more aesthetically pleasing, the incorporation of the small art renderings also makes the figure easier to interpret by the reader.

As someone who reads a lot of scientific literature for courses and for my research, I have gained a huge amount of respect and admiration for authors who choose to incorporate these types of artistic efforts into their scientific publications. It is certainly not the norm in publication yet, with most papers still focusing on very data intensive and traditional figures.

When I stumble upon artistic figures during my reading, they stand out and, importantly, they make an impact. Anecdotally, I notice myself recalling information more easily from papers that include these figures, and for a longer duration of time. It is difficult to remember which paper had a specific bar graph with fish catch data I am looking for. It is a lot easier to remember the paper that had a striking piece of art that made their fish catch data stand out from every other paper I read.

This is not just me. Studies in healthcare have shown that pictures can increase attention and recall of medical information (Houts et al. 2006), and there are abundant examples from the fields of advertising and marketing that creativity and impactful graphics increase recall and sway behavior (e.g., Hagtvedt and Patrick 2008, Till and Baack 2013).

My experiences learning about graphic design and how to effectively convey messages have led to the realization that, while often construed as disparate disciplines, there is a harmony when science and art are combined. Art can make science more appealing, more understandable, and more impactful. Those are the goals of most scientists when publishing, so why not look for opportunities to incorporate art into our scientific publications?


Booth, H., D. Squires, and E. J. Milner-Gulland. 2020. The mitigation hierarchy for sharks: A risk-based framework for reconciling trade-offs between shark conservation and fisheries objectives. Fish and Fisheries 21: 269-289.

Hagtvedt, H. and V. Patrick. 2008. Luxury versus Humor: Contrasting the Use of Art in Advertising in Advances in Consumer Research, Volume 35, eds. A. Y. Lee and D. Soman. Association for Consumer Research, Duluth, MN.

Houts, P. S., C. C. Doak, L. G. Doak, and M. J. Loscalzo. 2006. The role of pictures in improving health communication: A review of research on attention, comprehension, recall, and adherence. Patient Education and Counseling 61(2):173-190.

Nature Editorial. 2021. Collaborations with artists go beyond communicating the science. Nature 590, 528.

Oke, K. B., C. J. Cunningham, P. A. H. Westley, M. L. Baskett, S. M. Carlson, J. Clark, A. P. Hendry, V. A. Karatayev, N. W. Kendall, J. Kibele, H. K. Kindsvater, K. M. Kobayashi, B. Lewis, S. Munch, J. D. Reynolds, G. K. Vick, and E. P. Palkovacs. 2020. Recent declines in salmon body size impact        ecosystems and fisheries. Nature Communications, 11: 4155.

Ross-Hellauer, T., J. P. Tennant, V. Banelyte, E. Gorogh, D. Luzi, P. Kraker, L. Pisacane, R. Ruggieri, E. Sifacaki, and M. Vignoli. 2020. Ten simple rules for innovative dissemination of research. PLoS Computational Biology 16(4): e 1007704.

Till, B. D. and D. W. Baack. 2013. Recall and persuasion: Does creative advertising matter? Journal of Advertising 34(2): 47-57.

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