This is the question that has been asked by a group of scientists from the eScience Institute at the University of Washington, led by Bill Howe. The group set out to investigate whether the number and types of figures included in a scientific paper correlated with the influence of that article.
The team designed a computer algorithm that was able to distinguish between different types of figures – which they defined as diagrams, photographs, equations, plots and tables. They then scanned more than 650,000 articles from PubMed Central to quantify the number and types of figures in each article. The influence of each article was quantified using article-level Eigenfactor scoring, which weighs citations by their influence.
As described in their recent publication, Howe et al., found that articles with a higher number of diagrams, and to a lesser extent, plots, had more influence than those with fewer diagrams or plots. They also found that articles that included photographs and equations had less influence.
The team suggest that these results may highlight the importance of clarity; illustrating an original idea visually may lead to more impact than simply reporting experimental results. However, it is possible that the effect may be one of causation rather than correlation, as described in a recent report on the study. For example, diagrams may frequently be used to introduce new concepts, therefore articles with diagrams may be launching new fields of investigation.
With the knowledge that illustrations can convey important scientific concepts, the team have launched Viziometrics, an online database of scientific images, that can be searched using key words. It is hoped that details from these images may be used to create “super figures” which combine current scientific knowledge, for example a comprehensive figure showing all of the known chemical processes in a cell.