Tips on effective use of tables and figures in research papers (2023)

Several studies, journal guidelines, and discourses on scientific writing1-10affirm the critical role that tables, figures, and graphs (or display items) play in enhancing the quality of manuscripts.Scientific tables and graphs can be utilized to represent sizeable numerical or statistical data in a time- and space-effective manner. Readers are often drawn towards tables and figures, because they perceive it as easy-reading, as compared to reading a verbose account of the same content. They rightly assume that these display items will provide them with a larger amount of information in a shorter time span.

At the manuscript screening stage, these display items offer reviewers and journal editors a quick overview of the study findings, and once the paper is published, they do the same for readers (some of whom look only at these display items and not at the rest of the manuscript7).However, tables and figures only add value to the format of a research report, if they are brief yet sufficiently informative.

These visual elements help authors present detailed results and complex relationships, patterns, and trends clearly and concisely;1-8,11,13,14reduce the length of the manuscript;3,5,13,15

and enhance readers’ understanding of the study results.11,12Therefore, these tools are integral to the

format of a research paper

because, if clear and well-organized, they speed up the comprehension and interpretation of the study’s findings.

But while well-presented tables and figures in research papers can efficiently capture and present information, poorly crafted tables and figures can confuse readers and impair the effectiveness of a paper.16To help authors get the balance right, this article presents some essential guidelines to the effective use of tables and figures in research papers.

Planning your paper: When to use tables and figures in scientific papers

Producing effective tables and figures requires careful planning that begins at the manuscript writing stage itself. Here’s how to go about it:

  • First, check out what your target journal has to say on the issue. Some journals limit the number of tables and figures and also have specific guidelines on the design aspects of these display items.
  • Next, decide whether to use tables and figures or text to put across key information.(Refer to Table 1 below for help on making this decision.)
  • After you’ve decided to use a display item, choose the display item that best fits your purpose based on what you wish readers to focus on and what you want to present.(Refer to Table 1 below for more information.)
  • Finally, follow the best-practice guidelines outlined in section 3 and review the examples presented in section 4 of this paper to ensure that your tables and figures are well-designed.

Table 1: How to choose between tables, figures, and text to present data

Tips on effective use of tables and figures in research papers (4)

Best practices for presentation of tables and figures in scientific papers

(Video) Effective Use of Tables and Figures in Research Papers

General guidelines:

1.Ensure that display items are self-explanatory: Some readers (and certainly reviewers and journal editors) turn their attention to the tables and figures before they read the entire text, so these display items should be self-contained.6,8,9,12,16,20

2. Refer, but don’t repeat: Use the text to draw the reader’s attention to the significance and key points of the table/figure, but don’t repeat details.5,12,16,19,21,22So for example, you could highlight your main finding (e.g., “We found that the treatment was effective in only 24% of the cases, as shown in Figure 1”), but don’t repeat exact values (e.g., “As Table 2 shows, 32% of the subjects chose Option 1, 12% chose Option 2, 10% chose Option 3, and 46% chose Option 4”). This defeats the very purpose (efficiency and clarity) of having a table or figure.

3.Be consistent:6,9,12,17Ensure consistency between values or details in a table (e.g., abbreviations, group names, treatment names) and those in the text.

4.Give clear, informative titles:16,17Table and figure titles should not be vague9,19 but should concisely describe the purpose or contents of the table/figure and should ideally draw the reader’s attention to what you want him/her to notice17(e.g., Advantages and disadvantages of using sleep therapy with patients suffering from schizophrenia). Also ensure that column heads, axis labels, figure labels, etc., are clearly and appropriately labelled.

5.Adhere to journal guidelines: Check what your target journal has to say about issues like the number of tables and figures, the style of numbering, titles, image resolution, file formats, etc., and follow these instructions carefully.18,23

Guidelines for tables:

1.Combine repetitive tables: Tables and figures that present repetitive information will impair communication rather than enhance it.8,12Examine the titles of all your tables and figures and check if they talk about the same or similar things.8If they do, rethink the presentation and combine or delete the tables/graphs.

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2.Divide the data:7When presenting large amounts of information, divide the data into clear and appropriate categories and present them in columns titled accurately and descriptively.

3.Watch the extent of data in your tables: If the data you have to present is extensive and would make the tables too cluttered or long, consider making the tables a part of the Appendix or supplemental material.8

4. De-clutter your table: Ensure that there is sufficient spacing between columns and rows7and that the layout does not make the table look too messy or crowded.

Guidelines for figures:

1.Ensure image clarity: Make sure that all the parts of the figure are clear:18Use standard font; check that labels are legible against the figure background; and ensure that images are sharp.24

2. Use legends to explain the key message:25Figure legends are pivotal to the effectiveness of a figure. Use them to draw attention to the central message as well as to explain abbreviations and symbols.

(Video) Formatting tables and figures in your research paper

3.Label all important parts: Label the key sections and parts of schematic diagrams and photographs, and all axes, curves, and data sets in graphs and data plots.6,7,16,18

4. Give specifics: Include scale bars in images and maps; specify units wherever quantities are listed; include legends in maps and schematics; and specify latitudes and longitudes on maps.7,18

Get help with creating technical artwork as per the guidelines of your target journal with Editage’s professional artwork services.

Examples of well-prepared tables and figures

This section presents one example each of a well-prepared table and a well-designed figure.

The table below is taken from a dietary study on chick-rearing macaroni penguins26and is an example of an effective table for the following reasons:

Tips on effective use of tables and figures in research papers (5)

1. The titleclearly describes what the table is about.

2.The column heads are descriptive and clearly indicate the nature of the data presented.

3.The data is divided into categories for clarity.

4.It is self-contained and can be understood quite well even without reference to the entire paper.

5.Superscript letters and notes are used to offer additional, clarifying information.

6.Sufficient spacing is present between columns and rows; the layout is clean, and the font is legible.

Examples of an effective figure (graph)

The figure belowfrom a paper on the efficacy of oyster reefs as natural breakwaters27, scores on several counts:

Tips on effective use of tables and figures in research papers (6)

(Video) How to use TABLES like a pro in your academic conference poster presentation | Real examples!

  1. The informative title that immediately tells the reader what to expect in the graph.
  2. The axes are labeled clearly.
  3. The key clearly identifies what each element in the graph stands for.
  4. A figure legend at the bottom draws the reader’s attention to the graph's key points.
  5. A note at the bottom acknowledges the source.
  6. The graph is 2-dimensional, with no clutter.


Figures andtables, or display items, are powerful communication tools—they give your manuscript a professional feel, attract and sustain the interest of readers, and efficiently present large amounts of complex information.7Moreover, as most journals editors and reviewers will glance at these display items before they begin a full reading of your paper, their importance cannot be overemphasized.

You might be interested in checking out this insightful course: Create effective tables for your research paper

1. Council of Science Editors. Journal Style and Format. In Council of Science Editors(Eds.), Scientific Style and Format: The CSE Manual for Authors, Editors, and Publishers, 7th Edition (p. 460). Reston, VA: Rockefeller University Press, 2006.

2.American Psychological Association. APA Editorial Style. In Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association,5th Edition (pp. 147–201). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2001.

3.International Committee of Medical Journal Editors. Uniform Requirements for Manuscripts Submitted to Biomedical Journals: Writing and Editing for Biomedical Publication [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

4.Cooper RJ, Schriger DL, Wallace RC, Mikulich VJ, Wilkes MS. The Quantity and Quality of Scientific Graphs in Pharmaceutical Advertisements. Journal of General Internal Medicine, 2003; 18: 294–297.

5.Durbin CG Jr. Effective Use of Tables and Figures in Abstracts, Presentations, and Papers. Respiratory Care, 2004; 49(10): 1233–1237.

6.EMGO Institute for Health and Care Research. Reporting Results in Tables and Figures. In Guidelines in the Analysis Phase (pp. 14–16). [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

7.Springer. The Importance of Figures and Tables. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

8.Clark JC. Effective Tables and Figures. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

9.McMillan VE. Using Tables and Figures. In Writing Papers in the Biological Sciences (pp. 30–50). New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1988.

10.Smith LD, Best LA, Stubbs DA, Archibald AB, Roberson-Nay R. Constructing Knowledge: The Role of Graphs and Tables in Hard and Soft Psychology. American Psychologist, 2002; 57(10): 749–761.

11.Purdue Online Writing Lab. APA Tables and Figures 1. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

12.SAGE Publications. How to Get Your Journal Article Published. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

(Video) How to use FIGURES like a pro in your academic conference poster presentation

13.Paradise C. How to Record and Present Your Data Graphically Using Excel. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:


14.Schriger DL, Sinha R, Schroter S, Liu P, Altman D. From Submission to Publication: A Retrospective Review of the Tables and Figures in a Cohort of Randomized Controlled Trials Submitted to the British Medical Journal. Annals of Emergency Medicine, 2006; 48(6): 750–756.

15. Institute of Food Technologists. Author Guidelines. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

16.The University of ReadingStatistical Services Centre. Informative Presentation of Tables, Graphs and Statistics. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

17.Hoagland N. Using Tables and Figures in an Academic Research Paper. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

18.Author Aid Resource Library. Tables and Figures: Some Basic Advice. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

19.Northwestern’s Online Writing Resources. Visual Communication: Document Design, Figures, and Tables. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

20.Marine Ecology Progress Series. Guidelines for MEPS Authors. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

21. BMJ Publishing Group. The Essentials of BMJ Style. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

22.The Geological Society of America. Geology Guidelines. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

23.Wiley-Blackwell. Author Services: Electronic Artwork Guidelines. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

24. Wiley-Blackwell. Electronic Artwork—An Introduction. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

25. PLOS Biology. PLOS Biology Guidelines for Authors. [Accessed: Aug 8, 2011] Available from:

26. Deagle BE, Gales NJ, Evans K, Jarman SN, Robinson S, et al. Studying Seabird Diet through Genetic Analysis of Faeces: A Case Study on Macaroni Penguins (Eudypteschrysolophus). PLoS ONE 2007; 2(9): e831.

27. Cyphers SB, Powers SP, Heck KL Jr, Byron D. Oyster Reefs as Natural Breakwaters Mitigate Shoreline Loss and Facilitate Fisheries.PLoS ONE2011; 6(8): e22396.

Recommended reading:

  • Referring to tables and figures in text
  • Avoid instructions such as "See Table 2" and "Refer to Figure 6"
  • Quick tips on writing titles for tables and figures in scientific papers
  • Presenting your tables effectively
  • The complete guide to writing a brilliant research paper

You might find this course helpful: Create effective tables for your research paper

(Video) How to add Tables and Figures in academic papers: APA 7th edition


How do you use figures and tables effectively to present research findings? ›

Ensure the use of a standard font, legible labels, and sharp images. Use appropriate legends: They make figures effective and draw attention towards the key message. Make it precise: There should be correct use of scale bars in images and maps, appropriate units wherever required, and adequate labels and legends.

How do you number tables and figures in a research paper? ›

Figures should be labeled with a number preceding the table title; tables and figures are numbered independently of one another. Also be sure to include any additional contextual information your viewer needs to understand the figure.

Why are tables and figures important in the presentation of a research paper? ›

Figures and tables (display items) are often the quickest way to communicate large amounts of complex information that would be complicated to explain in text. Many readers will only look at your display items without reading the main text of your manuscript.

How do you use figures in a research paper? ›

In a research paper, figures must be included in the center of the page, close to where it is first referred to, preferably immediately below the paragraph where the data was mentioned. All figures must be identified with a number and followed by a brief but intelligible statement that describes the data provided.

How do you prepare the figures and tables in a manuscript for submission? ›

Ensure that the tables and figures in your research manuscript are self-explanatory and can be understood independent of text. 2. Do not repeat the contents of your tables and figures within the text. Instead, use the text to focus on the significance or key points of your tables and figures.

How should figures and tables be numbered? ›

Simple Consecutive Numbering: All figures and tables are numbered consecutively (Figure 1, Figure 2, Figure 3, Table 1, Table 2, Table, 3 etc.) throughout the document regardless of which section they are in.

How do you list a table in a research paper? ›

All tables should be labeled and formatted in APA style with numbering, title, notes, borders, etc. Tables should be placed after the paragraph where they are first mentioned. If a table continues is very large, it can start on the next page after it is mentioned.

Why do writers use figures and tables in documents and why is it important to choose the right kind of visual for a reader? ›

Tables and figures are used to display quantitative information. Readers find technical information easier to understand when the description or discussion contains a visual element. Tables and figures do not replace technical information; rather, they make it easier for readers to understand large quantities of data.

How are tables and figures used in academic writing? ›

There should be two numbering series: one for tables and one for figures (e.g. Table 1., Table 2. AND Figure 1., Figure 2.) Positioning—place tables and figures immediately below the paragraph/relevant text. In-text referencing—refer to the table or figure by number in your writing (e.g. Table 6 shows that …)

How do you introduce tables and figures? ›

Traditionally, tables and figures should be mentioned in a sentence before they appear in the document. This first reference is important because it helps your readers understand the connection between the tables and figures with the rest of the text.

When should tables and figures be used? ›

Use tables and figures if your data is large or complex, or if you need to show trends or patterns across data sets. Also read our tips on deciding whether tables and/or figures are the best choice for your data, or whether text would be more suitable. 3.

What things should be kept in mind while preparing a good table? ›

1 Answer
  • Title/Heading : Each table should have clear, complete and brief title. ...
  • Cells and Rows : Keeping in mind the objective of tabulation and the available information, the number of columns and rows should be ascertained beforehand. ...
  • Comparison : Comparable data-items should be kept as close as possible in a table.
8 Jun 2020

Which is to be considered when doing an effective table? ›

Ensure that the title of your table is concise and informative. A lengthy title that does not clearly indicate what your table is about will distract your reader. The titles of a table's columns should also be clear such that they can be viewed without referring to the text.

How do you introduce a table of figures in Word? ›

Click in your document where you want to insert the table of figures. Click References > Insert Table of Figures. You can adjust your Format and Options in the Table of Figures dialog box. Click OK.

How do you create an effective table? ›

When deciding how to style and format your table, prioritize readability and remove any visual clutter that may distract the eye.
  1. Choose The Best Row Style. ...
  2. Use Clear Contrast. ...
  3. Add Visual Cues. ...
  4. Align Columns Properly. ...
  5. Use Tabular Numerals. ...
  6. Choose an Appropriate Line Height. ...
  7. Include Enough Padding. ...
  8. Use Subtext.
1 Oct 2019

What is the purpose of table in research? ›

Tables are used to organize data that is too detailed or complicated to be described adequately in the text, allowing the reader to quickly see the results. They can be used to highlight trends or patterns in the data and to make a manuscript more readable by removing numeric data from the text.

Which comes first list of tables or figures? ›

The List of Figures is placed immediately after the List of Tables (or if you do not have a List of Tables directly after your Table of Contents.).

Which comes first tables or figures? ›

If on separate pages, tables come before figures. Tables and figures require a table or figure number, title, and a caption. The number (e.g., Table 1 or Figure 1) appears above the table or figure in the left-margin and in bold. The title is one double-space below the table number in italicized font.

How do you write a figure 1 in a research paper? ›

Every figure should appear flush with the left margin. Immediately below the figure, provide its number (e.g., “Figure 1”) in italics, followed by a period, followed by a brief but descriptive title (called a “figure caption”) in sentence case. For example: Figure 1.

What is the difference between table and figure in research paper? ›

Tables are numerical values or text displayed in rows and columns. A Figure is any type of illustration (chart, graph,photograph, drawing maps ...)

What is the main purpose or goal in using a table format? ›

Tables and figures enable writers to present a large amount of information efficiently and to make their data more comprehensible.

What is the advantage of using a table instead of a figure? ›

The idea is that table augments the reader's understanding of the text by allowing them to view textual data in different ways. This may allow easy comparison of outcomes, a way to emphasize similarities and differences, an easy reference, or whatever benefits the text.

How do you reference a table or figure in text? ›

All figures and tables must be mentioned in the text (a "callout") by their number. Do not refer to the table/figure using either "the table above" or "the figure below." Assign table/figure # in the order as it appears, numbered consecutively, in your paper - not the figure # assigned to it in its original resource.

How do you introduce a table in research? ›

The placement of figures and tables should be at the center of the page. It should be properly referenced and ordered in the number that it appears in the text. In addition, tables should be set apart from the text. Text wrapping should not be used.

What information should you include as a table or figure? ›

To present three or fewer numbers, try a sentence, To present between 4 and 20 numbers, try a table, To present more than 20 numbers, try a figure.

Can you put figures in introduction? ›

After the Abstract (the final section of the paper you should draft) and the visual aids, like figures, a reader's first true interaction with your work is the Introduction.

How do you list tables and figures? ›

Steps to insert list of tables and figures in Word
  1. Place the cursor where you want to add the list.
  2. Go to the References tab.
  3. Click Insert Table of Figures in the Caption group.
  4. In the Table of the Figures dialog box select the relevant Caption Label (Table, Figure, & Equation, etc…)
20 Dec 2019

How do you list tables and figures in a dissertation? ›

Lists of Tables, Figures, and Illustrations

Include the heading(s) in all capital letters, centered 1″ below the top of the page. Include one double-spaced line between the heading and the first entry. Each entry must include a number, title, and page number.

How do you present a list of figures in thesis? ›

The List of illustrations will come after the Contents page (on a separate page) and before the Introduction. This page should list the name of each figure of illustration that is included in the body of your dissertation or thesis and then give the number of the page that it appears on.

How do you properly write figures? ›

General rules
  1. Spell out numbers that begin a sentence: ...
  2. Spell out numbers used in a casual sense: ...
  3. Use numerals for numbers 10 and greater and spell out numbers one through nine, with these exceptions: ...
  4. A note on statistics on the NAU21 web theme: Please don't use statistics outside of stats blocks.

Is a screenshot of a table a figure? ›

Figures include diagrams and all types of graphs. An image, photo, illustration or screenshot displayed for scientific purposes is classed as a figure. All figures in your paper must be referred to in the main body of the text.

How many figures should a research paper have? ›

Figures: 6-8 (one per page) Tables: 1-3 (one per page) References: 20-50 papers (2-4 pages)

Where do you put a list of tables and figures in a report? ›

In addition to the Table of Contents, a Table of Figures and Tables is usually required in a report. It is situated immediately after the Table of Contents. It contains a list of figures, statistical tables, diagrams and graphs, including their titles.

How do I format a list of tables and figures in Word? ›

On the Insert menu, click Index and Tables, and then click the Table of Figures tab. Click Options, and then select the Style check box. On the Style pop-up menu, click the style name that is used for the figure captions, and then click OK. In the Formats box, select one of the designs.


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