Moselio Schaechter

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« Fine Reading: When Microbial Conversations Get Physical | Main | Frost Flowers Come to Life »

May 13, 2011

A Beef

A bovine eye chart. Source.

by Elio

I have a complaint. Scientific papers can be quite demanding to read. So, why make life more difficult by making the legends of the figures so hard to read? My big complaint is that when a legend pertains to multiple parts, the letters corresponding to them are nearly invisible. Try finding the (c), (d), or (e) in the legend. For heaven’s sake, what is so hard about showing these in bold letters? Besides, life would be simpler if there were fewer images or if they weren’t grouped so tightly.

Next time you write a paper, tell the editor that you want the letters in figure legends to be in bold face. Thank you in the name of all of us.


You are correct in condemning small type in legends and references. Its all about money, I fear and the cost of coated paper. We should insist on concise text making room for bigger type since we cannot stop the scientific world writing papers on everything done in the name of research and thats all about money too because you need a paper trail to get maney to do more. You need to add for some publications (esp. Society quarterlies ,except for Microbe of ASM)the attemt at baeutification wiith colour everywhere over and under type together with patches in different (often small) type sans serif and so on. We ought to complain on asbestos paper.

You wisdom has not abated. Thanks for sharing it.

I hear some mention about visually challenged, but I am young and I must say I can NEVER seem to find those darn legend letters. It always seems to occur when one is in a meeting with their PI and they just really want to make a point!

Thanks for the comment. It reinforces our point. But I doubt that many will listen. As Vincent R. implies, Style Manuals trump common sense.

Bolding the figure callouts is so easy, yet few journals do it. Unfortunately, unless it's part of the journal's style sheet, they won't change it on request.

I have another beef - tiny figures and legends in grant applications! Now that they are all pdfs, it makes it very hard for the visually challenged to read. Try blowing up a multi-part 2x2 inch figure and watch the pixels grow.

Elio says:

Mercé rightly points out that the journal International Microbiology (see has pioneered in the simple practice of using bold letters in the legends. This is an exciting journal that has been highly innovative since its inceptions, so don't be surprised. Disclosure: I have the honor of being a member of its Editorial Board.

Ami: there are several journal with the title "Journal of Negative Results". Just Google that. They may serve the purpose you so well expound.

Huila - you make a good point. But it's hard to strike the right balance for proper documentation. Even "Supplemental Material" can be abused.

About too many figures tied up together, this may be changed if there aren't so many harsh reviewers asking extra data while the journal asks only 7-8 figures

Thats a good call. I am with Elio.
What is most bothering to me is that there are no or not enough publications with negative results or non significant results. People invest much time money and effort on a study, get negative or non significant results due to several reasons (perhaps bad design of study sometimes) and the scientific community cannot learn from the mistakes of others. I wonder how much money and time is wasted over and over again since no reference is available of the same thing. Such papers can be good preliminary reference results for the design and buildup for following studies. I can also understand why a scientist would not want to publish such results... it can harm his or hers H factor and in some cases may pronounce... well... stupidity. But not always! sometimes there are just non significant results. biological systems may get chaotic and if such a system was studied, we should know about it and learn from previous mistakes.

"International Microbiology" (, the journal of the Spanish Society of Microbiology, uses bold for these (A, (B), (C) in the legends
You recommend authors to ask the editors they use bold letters in the figure legends. I would recommend the authors no to make unnecessary figures and tables that sometimes duplicate information aredy given in the text.

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