Should figures go at the end of a manuscript or appear in line? And where should figure legends go?

We’ve been thinking a lot about publishing lately here at Dynamic Ecology, including issues such as whether to sign reviews (I generally don’t), changes in authorship practices, whether all reviewers should be satisfied before a paper is accepted (Jeremy says reviewers advise, the editor decides), and whether reviewers are gate-keepers or editors (Brian thinks that, unfortunately, it’s increasingly the latter). But now I want to tackle two truly weighty topics related to the publication process: whether figures should go at the end of a manuscript and whether figure legends should appear on the same page as the figure. Two polls are below, along with some of my thoughts.

First, a poll about where to place figures:

I prefer having the figures at the end of a manuscript, since then I know where to find them. If a figure is referenced multiple times in a manuscript and it appears in line where it was first referenced, I need to do more scrolling/flipping to find the figure. Some of this may be because I developed habits about how to review manuscripts back when they pretty much always appeared at the end of a manuscript. I either print off the figures and have them all in front of me while I read a file, or I have two versions of the file open, one where I’m editing the text, and one where I’ve scrolled to the bottom to the section with the figures, allowing me to easily move up and down to get between them. I think I will end up in the minority with my preference for figures at the end.

Now, moving on to figure legends:

On this one, I’m strongly in favor of them being on the same page as the figure. I don’t see a reason (given current publishing practices, at least) for them to be together on an earlier page. I think that having them all on a page preceding the figures might be a holdover from the days before electronic publishing. I seem to recall that, for my first paper (which I mailed in), there were guidelines about how much white space needed to be around a figure. Given that everything is electronic now, I don’t see a reason not to have the figure legend right on the page, since that’s where I need that information. (I realize that some people will make this exact same argument regarding whether figures should be in line. I would agree with it if figures were only ever referenced once in a manuscript.)

I’ll be interested in hearing other people’s thoughts in the comments!

46 thoughts on “Should figures go at the end of a manuscript or appear in line? And where should figure legends go?

  1. I voted for figures in text (although I use the same workaround you do, with 2 copies of the files open if the figures are at the end). I think you are right about the reason for figure-legends-all-together. A lot of our manuscript practices are holdovers from the days when it was the author’s job to make typesetting easy. Now software shouldn’t have a problem with that, and instead we can prepare manuscripts that are easier for people to read while they’re still manuscripts. Figures at end, figure legends together, the bizarre (to me; but yeah, I’m going to hear about this one) preference for only one space after a comma, unindented paragraphs – all these and more get explained as necessary to facilitate typesetting, but make things harder for readers and can easily be replaced by typesetting software if it’s any good at all.

    • “the bizarre….preference for only one space after a comma”

      Blasphemy Dr Heard! That’s the natural order of things, always has been and always will be! One space after a comma, two spaces after a full stop.

      “Confident their way is best”

      🙂

      • D’oh! Why did I type that? I mean one space after a PERIOD/FULL STOP, of course. Two spaces after a comma would be just bizarre. I am a typing idiot…

        (and many points for the Rush reference)

      • Well, I’m glad that we got that one sorted out! Perhaps we need to move on to something a bit more challenging like, oh I dunno, religious doctrine….

      • Evidently when we are using proportional fonts (as opposed to monospaced ones), one space after a full stop is now the rule. I still tend to use two spaces in e-mails, though, because I think they help with readability there.

        What really annoys me is when people have a mix of one to three spaces after periods throughout their document.

  2. My immediate thought when I read the title of this post was: “They should go wherever the journal asks you to put them!” All publishers have their own in-house styles for these sorts of things, including specific reference formats. If these aren’t closely followed then there is a danger of the manuscript being rejected without review; at the very least it’s going to annoy the reviewers or editor who will notice the inconsistencies.

    So I suppose my question would be: what’s the purpose of this post, is it to try to get publishers to change their in-house styles?

    • I’m with Jeff on this – we do whatever makes the layout person’s job easier at the publishers and this has nothing to do with when someone passed their PhD!

      None of the the preferences or styles listed have anything to do with the reader – doing professional page layout requires grouping information by data type in the work flow (hence all the figure captions on one page, figures as separate files) … stuff like adding spaces and paragraph indents everywhere just makes extra work during typesetting.

      Nothing more irritating than having to take the time to delete all those extra characters and formats added by authors who think they know better when the instructions to authors clearly said not to add them!

    • @Jeff: Yes, partially the idea is to see if there is consensus about what people prefer, in which case some journals might want to change what they require. But it’s also increasingly the case that some journals leave it up to the author

      @Jennifer: I only have time of degree in there as a way of trying to get a sense for whether people of different career stages/ages tend to have different views on this. My guess is that more senior folks are more likely to prefer figures at the end, but I’m not sure if that will hold or not.

      • I should add that the immediate motivation for this post was working on edits to a manuscript. The figures were in line and I added a comment that said something like “I know this makes me an old fogey, but I prefer when the figures are all at the end”. My coauthor was surprised by that, since he had the impression that people prefer them inline. I then spent 20 minutes working on this post instead of editing the manuscript.

      • @scientistseesquirrel – in a just world it doesn’t make sense of course, I guess here a paid person’s time is always “worth” more – the volunteer reviewer’s time doesn’t “count” or isn’t “counted” … I suppose if this was a real factor for journals wishing to attract more reviewers, then they’d change the way they deal with some of these issues because obviously technological solutions are available

        @Meghan – I’ve got a bit of an outsider view since I’ve trained in graphic design and I can’t stand inline figures that are badly placed on a page without proper text flow management 🙂
        I usually use the two window option anyway!

    • I wasn’t one of those two but I can see the logic of it when you have large, complex figures that are best printed at the largest size possible, and very long figure legends that include a lot of necessary information if the figure is to stand alone. That could be the next post in this series:

      Are figure legends getting longer over time? And why are they called “legends” and not “titles”?

      🙂

  3. I chose figures in the manuscript text as I don’t print the manuscript while reviewing it (although hadn’t though about your brilliant idea of having two files open).

    Figure legends on separate pages is just plain anger inducing as a reviewer.

    Speaking of anger inducing: Any journal that doesn’t do some version of “manuscript your way” (allowing authors to send in a single pdf or word file in an intelligible non-journal specific format) is pretty much evil. All formatting changes should only be handled once the paper makes it to a “revision” stage. Requiring knit-picky formatting on an initial submission that is likely to be rejected wastes everyone’s time.

    • How many journals do “manuscript your way”, Matthew? I’ve only encountered one so far. I agree it’s a good idea but it seems to be very rare, at least in my experience.

      • Yeah I think I went a little overboard with “is evil”, given its rarity :). I know theoretical biology and mathematical biosciences both do it. Not sure how many journals do it in practice, eventhough they may not disclose such info.

      • Maybe I’m over generalizing but don’t most journals have word limits instead of page limits these days? I vaguely recall ESA journals still use page limits (but am too lazy to go look it up), but I can’t think of any other that is not something like 5000 words (including or not including references and abstract)

    • Just saw a paper formatted this way. It had the figures inline and at the end. It worked for me. Electrons on a screen are cheap so the cost of duplication was low.

  4. Having to hunt for figures and flip pages while reading the text is a pet peeve, and annoying as much as a T.rex. But perhaps I’m a dinosaur anyway. I still read printed papers (mostly so I can write notes and comments all over the pages).

      • Dinosaur #3 here – I print out all papers I review. I have recently become able to review papers with putting comment sin the margins using Acrobat if I have to like on an airplane. But I still much prefer a printed copy.

    • everyone has their own system. I review digitally by keeping a simple text editor open (text wrangler for mac os) for my notes. This is why consecutive line number of the manuscript is key. This is efficient…my notes are edited as I re-read (and re-read) and eventually morph into the polished review. Copy and paste into the review box online and I’m done (other than notes to the editor).

      • I should add that I often do little simulations in R when I review. This allows me to write notes as comments in the R script. What I haven’t done, but which would be the most efficient, would be to write my notes using knitr in R studio, which has the advantage of LaTeX with good equation editing and R scripts in one document. Then just send in my review as a PDF sans script.

  5. I voted what I was taught – figures at end, legends together – which is easier when printing out a paper for reviewing and editing. But, honestly, I hate that. Secretly inside, I always have. I like everything inline with captions with figures. But that’s so…. not how I was taught…. And not how journals ask for things usually. But I reviewed a paper that did it, and I liked it SO MUCH MORE.

    Then again, it’s a PITA if you are using word to get it to work right.

  6. As a reviewer, I definitely prefer the figures in text. I have heard people defend figures at the end as a means of reminding the writer to make the text “standalone”, but that would assume that people prepare their text in the same format (most don’t in my experience). My best guess is that the prevalence of figures at the end simply shows the conservatism in scientific publishing – it’s an anachronism from the time when text was written on a typewriter, in the same way that volumes and pages in the reference list have lost most utility, but we keep them because we are used to them.

  7. Meg, I was shocked to learn that anybody but the publisher wants the figures at the end of the manuscript! When students are submitting their first paper, this is always the biggest shock to them…”but why would I put them at the end?” If I’m reading the Results, the figures are right there. If I’m reading the Discussion, it’s only a short scroll back up. When they’re at the end, I have to scroll past the Discussion, past the Acknowledgements, past the References, past the Table Legends, past the Tables, past the Figure Legends page, before finally getting to what I want. This practice feels incredibly old-fashioned.

  8. I voted for figures and legends together in text (PhD 1982). Why would a manuscript be different from the finished product? Would anyone like to have the figures at the end in the published work? I doubt it! Given modern typesetting I see no reason for the review version to have the figures at the end. If the publishers need it that way for the final accepted submission, I would be fine with that.

  9. I currently have my students place figures and tables at the end of the results section of their papers. But my PI wouldn’t even read a draft unless they were at the end of the whole thing. This is especially silly since as @RiverGypsyAJ commented, most online submission formats want them uploaded separately.

  10. Figures with text. But far more annoying is the manuscript in which line numbers start over each page. This requires a zillion little micro-scrolls to find the page number when I’m reviewing.,i mention this to every editor when it happens and the typical response is crickets ir shrugged shoulders or some comment about 1st world problems

  11. I am a big fan of Elsevier’s ‘Your Paper Your Way’ system. Especially given papers may well end up submitted to >1 journal before being accepted and published. I would much prefer to worry about the minutiae of a journal’s editorial style preferences when I know the paper will be published there.

  12. I voted for in-text figures & legends. I print off the whole paper when I review, as I prefer reading on paper than online. I find it easier to review the figures while I’m reading about them, rather than flipping pages around, but I also like to review the paper as the reader would be reading it when published.

  13. I also prefer single spacing over double spacing. I can understand double spacing makes review easier for some people, but it doesn’t for me (and I print it out).

    • I think double spacing is the legacy of a pre-historic practice, when manuscripts were sent out for review in hard copies and the reviewers would write comments between double spaces and in the margins.

  14. Jeez, Meghan. Way to set your blog on fire. What are you going to do for an encore? Ask people what they think of the hallowed “double space everything” tradition? Or maybe, why do we need as many reference styles as there are journals? You might crash the site.

    Some definitive and highly opinionated responses to some comments:

    +     1. Initial submissions are for the reviewers, not the typesetter. Seek to format/present the manuscript in the same way you would wish to receive a manuscript to review. Almost always that would be something close to how it would appear when published. Yes, it takes a bit more work doing so, and then repackaging for the publishers work flow. However, not to do so is disrespectful of the reviewers.

    +     2. Seek to do this even if the instructions don’t explicitly allow for it. Mention the reason in the cover letter – yes, you know the journal’s revered instructions, but in consideration of the editor and reviewers’ time, you’ve assembled it for their easiest convenience to read. If accepted, you will of course reassemble the manuscript according to the production work flow. (I also put that same statement in a box on the title page, since I’m not sure even the editor reads the cover letter, and reviewers won’t see cover letters). I go as far as use a citation style that’s close to what they expect my target journal but addes the doi URL to each reference for click-accessibility.

    +     3. Put captions on figures and collect them all in one page (btw,they are ‘captions’, not ‘legends’). Why? Captions go on the figures because of #1, and you are writing for your initial readers, who are the editor and reviewers. Irritating them doubtfully will help their attitude for the rest of the reviews. Why also collect them into a page? Because you’ll need to before it’s accepted, so why not? The typesetters need them because they need the original, wordprocessing text, and they can’t easily pick them off a figure.

    +     4. ‘Follow the rules slavishly, at the peril of desk rejection‘ (paraphrasing jeffollerton). Certainly if shooting for that general interest, high impact journal (Nature, PNAS, Science) that rejects most submissions on newsworthiness, not because of peer review. But in the usual, reputable, topical journals? Have people recently encountered this? There are the legendary, imperious, pedantic EICs who’ve run their journal like their private fiefdom, but I’d think with the competitive environment between journals these lions in winter would be getting fewer. PNAS gets special mention as one for which to slavishly follow the rules. Their review versions look like page proofs. They have a slick process that automatically formats the review draft into a two-column, single spaced article, with figures and tables inserted inline, proportioned as if it were the final product. It really makes a difference for ease of review, and realistic impressions. It is remarkably better than the field. Not sure why they bother, since they reject >80%*, but their review versions are by far the best I’ve seen.

    +     5. Are we trying to get publishers to change their rules? (jeffollerton again). Why not? OK, if it’s the corporate-owned journals in mind (most Elsevier & MacSpringer titles), good luck with that. However, society-owned journals are more responsive to the desires of their membership.  I managed to get the society I’m most active in to to match Elsevier’s “Your paper your way” for their journals.  Took taking time out at conferences to get on the agenda at policy meetings, lobbying progressives to speak up in agreement and counter the “we do it this way, because this is the way we do it mossbacks” and pointing out journal instructions that were anachronisms from the last century and needed downsizing and updating. (Didn’t carry the day trying to get them to ditch their idiosyncratic reference styles. No folks, different reference styles are not a brand distinction, they are just an aggravation). And the society officers most resistant to change don’t even publish actively. Errrr. I digress.

    * unless one is an academy member, who get a free pass, although supposedly they were doing away with that. Now I really digress.

     

    • These thoughts are great! To address just a few things specifically:

      You wrote, “Seek to format/present the manuscript in the same way you would wish to receive a manuscript to review.” Part of what I was wondering with this poll was how much variation there is in the way people would wish to receive a manuscript for review.

      I do think some publishers might change their rules, especially if they realize that they are mostly doing things in a way that people dislike.

      Based on twitter discussions and the comments here, leading contenders for future polls are:
      1. Oxford comma
      2. one or two spaces after a period/full stop
      3. fonts/typefaces
      4. single or double spacing
      5. reference styles
      We’d break the web!

    • “‘Follow the rules slavishly, at the peril of desk rejection‘ (paraphrasing jeffollerton).”

      I think that’s an over-exaggeration of what I was saying rather than a paraphrase, Chris! But there’s a serious point here: as an editor and as a reviewer if I see a manuscript that has been poorly prepared, with references in lots of different formats, single line spaced, figures pasted into the text, and other things that were not specified, it sets up questions in my mind as (a) how serious authors are about this journal; and (b) how much care and attention to detail they have put into other aspects of the study, e.g. data analysis.

      We emphasise from undergraduate level that this is a training in being “professional” and that includes presenting work in a professional manner. As others have commented, the requirements for particular journals relate as much to the work flow of that journal as to anything else.

      • A belated apology for the over-exaggeration. What Jeff describes is sloppiness, and indeed, a sloppy presentation questions the care given other study aspects. What I had in mind was an internally consistent style that is easy for reviewers to navigate and read, using style definitions for text and headings, figures with captions, and modifying the reference style to include clickable links to the original reference. Yes, it might have to get re-arranged for publication, but that isn’t hard.

    • I know what Jeff is saying. Sometimes I’ll look at a paper that is too sloppy and think “boy they don’t look like they know what they’re doing”. And I have a style (I mean literally a style in Word) that puts a double line under heading 1 formats. In my early student days I had people tell me that I had to remove that before submission (and also eliminate indented paragraphs and revert to non-indented, separated by space paragraphs) or it wouldn’t look professional. I confess I ignored them and it never hurt me. And those seem rather trivial now. But by and large given the following trends:
      1) the ease of pretty formatting in Word/Tex/etc and also the ease of typsetting given an electronic submission, most of the conventions are very dated and were made for reasons that no longer exist
      2) the fact that many (most) papers go to multiple journals
      … leads me to agree with Chris. Papers submitted to review should be formatted to be easy to review and there is no reason to enforce slavish formatting at the review stage.

      At Global Ecology and Biogeography we pretty much do “Your paper your way” without the fancy marketing slogan. We explicitly say in author instructions please do reformat your abstract to conform to GEB style (we have a pretty specific abstract and that is a highly read part of the paper) but otherwise don’t bother reformatting if you’re resubmitting after another journal. Towards your poll, Meg, we also explicitly ask for the figure captions to go with the figures (but are silent on where the figures should be located).

  15. Pingback: Most people want their figures in line. Almost everyone wants legends on the same page as figures. | Dynamic Ecology

  16. This just came in my mailbox – maybe they read this post? I love JEB. They were on the leading edge of digitizing their archive, making archived papers freely available, publishing color figs without extra charges (extra charge in a digital world? really?), and now this:

    JEB now offers format-free submission

    At Journal of Experimental Biology (JEB), we are committed to making submission as easy as possible for our authors. As part of our commitment to you, we are now introducing format-free submission.

    Why are we introducing format-free submission?
    We realise that submitting your paper to any journal can be a lengthy process. As an author, you are asked to comply with detailed journal-specific guidelines when you don’t yet know whether your paper will be accepted or even peer-reviewed. We want to reduce that pain to submit.

    What does this mean for you?
    You can submit your paper to JEB in any format. From now on, we will only ask you to do what is absolutely necessary at submission. In practice, this means that other requirements will move to the revision stages – but we hope you won’t mind at this point, given that we accept over 95% of revised manuscripts.

    As part of this change, and recognising the importance of comprehensive Materials and Methods sections to aid transparency and reproducibility, we are also removing the Materials and Methods section from our length limit to an article. Click here to read more.

    Try it out and let us know what you think!

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