Analyzing data is often the most important aspect of research and representing that data in a research paper is necessary to showcase results. Including data in a clear way will help a researcher explain their conclusion and help the reader decipher the researcher’s results. Since there is usually a large amount of data in research, including all of it would not make sense, especially where it is not relevant. Characteristics like conciseness and being aesthetic should be considered when trying to visually showcase data in either a table or a figure. Although the rules differ slightly, both APA and MLA research papers require tables and figures. How does one know when to include a table or figure? A generally used rule of thumb is that if you are not able to present your data in one or two sentences, then it is preferable to use a table.
Should I use a table or a figure?
Tables are usually used to display large amounts of data in a concise way that makes the data easily readable. Tables need to be carefully constructed to show your data to someone who may be skimming through your paper. There are a few things to keep in mind when creating your table. The legend or caption should be clear, not necessarily requiring someone to go back and read more of the paper to understand the data presented. Ideally, the data would be divided into categories in a way that makes sense depending on the data a researcher is working with. For example, you could be dividing the results based on demographics or age. Since visuals are an important aspect of creating a table, make sure that there is sufficient spacing between the columns and rows to avoid the table looking overcrowded. This would also include having font types and sizes that are legible. Finally, as is expected in research papers, provide units for the data you are showcasing in the table (Springer, n.d.).
Figures are used to present images, data plots, maps and schematics. Just as is the case with tables, researchers are expected to have clear legends to caption the data presented.
Images are generally used to help readers visualize the data you are presenting, especially when the data itself is difficult to describe accurately using words. With images, it is recommended to include scale bars, label items you want to highlight, and explain the meaning of any colors or symbols used.Data plots can be used to display large amounts of data quickly, with a goal of establishing some sort of functional or statistical relationship between two or more data variables. Generally, individual data is not shown, and the data plot will merely represent the relationship between the variables. With data plots, you should make sure that you are labeling all axes, specifying the units of the data, and labeling curves and data sets (Springer, n.d.).
Another helpful way to display data is using maps, which are increasingly used for field work to specify the location where the research was. A map should help a reader understand how a location affects the research and will help future researchers replicate your studies or find similar locations to verify your results. With maps, researchers should include the latitude and longitude, incorporate scale bars, add a legible legend, and point out important items. Schematics are another great way to visualize your data, and they help identify some key parts of the project or processes involved. Make sure to include relevant information to avoid cluttering the image, label the key items you want to highlight, and it is recommended to add explanations in the captions and/or main text (Springer, n.d.).
When including figures and tables in your research paper, there are a few suggestions you should keep in mind:
Self-explanatory visuals: Readers, reviewers and journal editors may gloss over the paper and go straight to the tables and figures before reading your paper. Therefore, it is recommended to have your visuals be created in a way that is self-explanatory. Avoid repeating yourself: Tables and figures are used to organize your data in a way that is clear and concise. Repeating yourself contradicts that point and will result in cluttered visuals. Be consistent: Attempt to be fairly consistent with the values you use to showcase your data and the values used in the main text of the manuscript. Clear titles: As many readers may go straight to reading your tables and figures, using clear titles will help guide those readers and will also garner interest for people who may find the conclusions reached interesting. Check the journal guidelines: Depending on your target journal, guidelines and instructions pertaining to creating tables and figures may be different when it comes to style of numbering, file formats and resolutions. Make sure that you adhere to those guidelines (The Writing Wing- UNCCH, 2022).
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