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Clinical Research: More Than Words

Art and science are often positioned as opposites, with scientific illustration at the intersection. However, visuals contribute greatly to scientific communication, allowing complex ideas or theories to be presented clearly and in an accessible way. Whether it’s a flyer in the doctor’s office, a poster at a conference or a research paper – the communication of clinical studies research requires more than just words.

For many years, researchers have used both text and images to communicate their findings. Perhaps the earliest documentation of scientific drawing comes from fifteen thousand years ago, in the form of a cave drawing of a mammoth with a smudge over its heart. It has been hypothesized that this was to help guide early hunters to where the mammoth’s heart was located for when hunting.

Greek physician Herophilus later pioneered illustration as a technical tool, as he dissected and drew his subjects to gain a better understanding of human anatomy. In the 16th Century, Leonardo Da Vinci illustrated the human heart, to show that it had four chambers and to communicate this observation on how the aortic valve opens and closes, so blood can only flow in one direction. Fast forward to today and visuals have become fundamental to the communication of clinical research, both peer-to-peer, in education and with the wider public. So why is that, and what is best practice when doing so?

As humans, we are visual by nature. The human brain processes images 60,000 times faster than text, and 90 per cent of information transmitted to the brain is visual. Visuals provide a way of breaking down medical phenomena in a way that allows us to enhance data processing and organisational effectiveness.

Communicating With Researchers

In clinical research papers, illustrations and infographics can simplify highly complex systems to make concepts easier to grasp. One option, which is growing in popularity, is visual abstracts. Often a single image, these help readers gain an overview of a research article in just a few minutes and usually contains the overall idea of experimental design, hypothesis and an indication of results. Visual abstracts enable fast screening of the information, while also stimulating further exploration of the research. According to a famous study published in The Economist “Graphic Details: the importance of diagrams to science”, having an infographic as a visual element in a paper increases citations by 120 per cent.

There are three main styles of visual abstract: diagram style (often used when molecular structures are involved), infographic style (preferred when you have images with high visual impact that need to be incorporated with text), and comic type (useful for communicating in magazines). The Cell Press Graphical Abstract Guidelines include examples of different styles of visual abstracts and gives insight into how to improve them.