Worth A Thousand Words

A cartoon image of a man, two cats and several electronic gadgets ,

Picture the scene: you are a scientific researcher. You have spent years analyzing a particular element of an accepted truth in the belief/knowledge that your insight will change human understanding of the world around us. You need to publish your findings to raise the profile of your discoveries, to encourage others to continue to the research, and to justify your funding. The problem is, how do you distill your premise and findings into an abstract of 300 words that succinctly covers everything AND tempts publishers and readers to continue to the full piece?

How about a cartoon?

As bizarre a notion as this is, Cartoon Abstracts are proving to be a successful way of doing just that. In his piece for Research information, Daniel Pullin discusses the idea: “Designed to give a visual overview of a research paper, these illustrated comic strips offer a light-hearted summary of what readers can expect to find in an article. Readers no longer have to grapple with just text alone; they now have a visual aid to guide them through challenging concepts.

Of course it’s a unique and clever way to make content more appealing, but how have the scientific and academic communities reacted? Doesn’t it trivialize the research?

In a word, no. After all, infographics and diagrams always been used to help clarify key information and express comparative data in a way that would be hopelessly complicated to do using text alone. Moreover, the scientific and academic communities are human too; welcoming anything that promises to raise the profile of their work as well as offering some light relief into the bargain.

The cartoons have garnered a level of attention for many research articles that was previously unthinkable. Pullin notes that one on the stride patterns of running athletes had received only 75 downloads before the cartoon treatment but closer to 1,000 downloads afterwards. “In a digitally-driven era, where newsfeeds are ruthlessly scrolled for entertaining, emotive content, the power of images in grabbing the user’s attention is hard to ignore… the artwork aids the understanding of complex concepts without diluting them, bringing wide appeal to often niche topics,” he says.

It’s little wonder that Cartoon Abstracts received an award for Innovation in Publishing from the Association of Learned & Professional Society Publishers.

Pullin notes that not every scientific article lends itself to the cartoon treatment, they have to be “topical, or with a quirky hook that will translate well into a cartoon” and even then have to go through a rigorous critical and creative process to make sure they engage both academic and non-academic audiences. It is not a bad thing that not every article qualifies for the treatment either, if they all were presented in cartoon format then it would lessen their impact. Those that don’t qualify are just waiting for some other clever soul to have a bright idea.

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