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Writing Basics

Tips for Writing Clear and Effective Scientific Figure Legends


Dr. Avriel Licciardi, Research Communications Strategist

August 2022

Figure legends should not be an afterthought—they are an integral part of any figure and instrumental for conveying your results. The main objective of a figure legend is to make it possible for the reader to interpret and understand the significance of the figure without referring to the main text. Although formatting is different from journal to journal, there are four components that are essential to every figure legend.

1. Title. All figure legends should have a brief, succinct title that describes the entirety of the figure, including all panels and subfigures. The title may be declarative, summarizing the results or major findings portrayed in the figure (e.g., “A mediates up-regulation of B”). Alternatively, the title of a figure legend may be a descriptive phrase, which may also indicate the type of analysis used in the study (e.g., “Scanning electron microscope images of zircon-bearing geological samples”).

2. Methods The figure legend should briefly describe the techniques used and/or the experimental design. This description could include the animal model, cell type, assay name, conditions/treatments analyzed, any laboratory or statistical tests applied, and primary methods employed. Although tempting to provide as much detail as possible, this information should be limited to only what is absolutely necessary to understand the figure.

3. Results. It is best to provide a single sentence stating the primary results shown in the figure. Note that this component of a figure legend is variable and may be unnecessary if your figure title is declarative. However, results-specific details, such as biological replicates, p-values and sample number (n), should be included, if applicable.

4. Abbreviations/definitions. Most figures contain symbols, abbreviations/acronyms, scale and error bars, lines, arrows, etc. It is critical to define these elements, as well as any aspect that may be non-intuitive about the figure, in the figure legend. For consistency, use the same abbreviations, nomenclature, and units in the figure that you used in the main text.

Lastly, if you are comparing your data directly with previously published data in the same figure, always provide the appropriate reference in the figure legend.

Remember that each journal has specific requirements for figures and the accompanying figure legends that they publish. We recommend always reviewing the instructions to authors for your desired journal and composing your legends specifically to match their requirements. Carefully following a journal’s guidelines can improve the likelihood of acceptance of your article.

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