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Formatting and Style

Common Problems to Avoid in Tables


Teri Surprenant, Managing Editor, Language Editing & Kathryn Muehlberger, Client Communications Specialist

December 2020

Tables are an excellent way to convey your research data, and they provide a visual break in dense papers; however, in order to clearly get your point across to readers, you need to be sure that you are displaying your information in an organized and accurate manner. The following are some tips to help you create tables that complement your manuscript instead of distracting the reader.

1. First, make sure that the information you put in a table is worthy of being presented as a table. Do not create a table for information about one patient, group, compound, or other item you are calling attention to; it looks odd to have a table with only two rows. If you have data for two items that you are comparing (such as experimental groups, compounds, or geographical areas), you can likely condense the information into a few sentences in the manuscript instead of creating a mini table. In contrast, if you have multiple groups or items you are highlighting (typically a minimum of three), it makes more sense to display the information in a table. In this case, an exceptionally long paragraph with data about multiple groups or items would be visually unappealing and likely confuse your readers.

2. Once you decide that you do need to create a table to display your information, you will want to be sure that your table is organized so that your information is clearly displayed in a way that makes sense. Be sure to have a short but appropriate title for the table so your readers know what to expect in the table that follows. After that, decide on the number of rows or columns that you need. If you see that you have too many rows––which may exceed the journal’s formatting requirements––you can simply switch to columns. If you are listing the data that correspond to several groups, you will want to be sure that each group is clearly labeled at the top of each column and the data for each group are listed in the correct cells beneath the appropriate group, all separated by the table grid lines, not by adding spaces in Word. In addition, be sure to use a font that is legible and size that is easy to read. Tables are a nice visual break in your article, so you do not want your reader to struggle when they see one. An example:

2a: Before:

Liver enzyme AST (U/L) ALT (U/L) ALP (U/L)
Value 30.8±5.1 180.7±7.9 274.3±7.2

2b: After:

Liver enzyme Value
ALT (U/L) 180.7 + 7.9
AST (U/L) 30.8 + 5.1
Albumin (g/dL) 6.5 + 1.4
ALP (U/L) 274.3 + 7.2

3. Only column headings should appear in the first row of tables, not a jumble of information that is crammed together. An example:

3a. Before:

Liver enzyme Liver enzyme Control group ------------------------------------Experimental group
AST (U/L) 30.8±5.1-------------------------------------------25.2±6.2
ALT (U/L) 180.7±7.9-----------------------------------------90.6±6.1
ALP (U/L) 274.3±7.2-----------------------------------------160.2±9.5

3b. After:

Liver enzyme Control group Experimental group
AST (U/L) 30.8±5.1 25.2±6.2
ALT (U/L)) 180.7±7.9 90.6±6.1
ALP (U/L) 274.3±7.2 160.2±9.5

4. If information is repeated in a table, you do not have to waste the precious space in the table repeating it over and over again. You can simply add a note at the bottom of the table. An example:

4a: Before:

Liver enzyme Sampling condition Control group Experimental group
ALT (U/L) Overnight fasting 180.7 + 7.9 90.6 + 6.1
AST (U/L) Overnight fasting 30.8 + 5.1 25.2 + 6.2
Albumin (g/dL) Overnight fasting 6.5 + 1.4 3.7 + 2.0
ALP (U/L) Overnight fasting 274.3 + 7.2 160.2 + 9.5

4b: After:

Liver enzyme Control group Experimental group
ALT (U/L) 180.7 + 7.9 90.6 + 6.1
AST (U/L) 30.8 + 5.1 25.2 + 6.2
Albumin (g/dL) 6.5 + 1.4 3.7 + 2.0
ALP (U/L) 274.3 + 7.2 160.2±9.5
Note: The sampling condition was overnight fasting.

5. Tables are considered independent from the manuscript text. In other words, a reader should be able to look at a table and be able to understand it without relying on the text of the manuscript. Acronyms, initialisms, and abbreviations should be spelled out in the caption. For instance, if you use ALT in your manuscript as an acronym for alanine transaminase, you can use ALT in a table, but be sure to add a note beneath the table that defines the acronym. An example:

Liver enzyme Control group Experimental group
AST (U/L) 30.8±5.1 25.2±6.2
ALT (U/L)) 180.7±7.9 90.6±6.1
ALP (U/L) 274.3±7.2 160.2±9.5
AST: aspartate transaminase; ALT: alanine transaminase; ALP: alkaline phosphatase.

These simple fixes will not only help you organize your data and improve the appearance of your article, but they will also help your readers easily understand the information being conveyed.

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