Infographic Abstracts

“To abstract is to draw out the essence of a matter. To abstract in art is to separate certain fundamentals from irrelevant material which surrounds them.”  ― Ben Shahn

Abstracts are arguably the most important part of any publication, particularly a systematic review or guideline.  The most important because often that is all most readers read or have access to. In today’s world where most new science is behind a paywall, abstracts are currently the only truly open access conduit for new findings. Therefore abstracts should present data in the most user-friendly of form, meaning infographics.

forest-plot-of-trees_laurel-grahamThis is not an argument for pine tree icons instead of forest plots:  this is an argument for infographic summaries in PubMed and really every database that provides abstracts of clinical publications.

Visualized data will capture readers’ attention when they would otherwise just skim over text and miss salient outcomes. A big red bar across a prescription bottle or a 3-D pie chart with dead rats on a slice sends a clear message: “Don’t feed your rats pills!”

As the old adage goes: “Images speak louder than words”, wait that’s actions….

No matter. Messaging must be direct, correct, succinct, and graphic. Especially in this age of social media, short attention spans, and economizing.


In a world where emoticons and text messages impart vital information, science is at a disadvantage. When findings might as well be written in hieroglyphics, infographics can be the 21st century’s Rosetta stone decoding the results for all. For all because it has been discovered that researchers often rely on bits and pieces of data just like the public rather than finding and reading all of the relevant data.

Nicholas et al.’s study reported on a survey of more than 1,000 transaction logs (equalling 17, 000 sessions) in ScienceDirect. Results showed 20% of researchers only read abstracts. Apparently, they were relying on only the abstract’s data to determine suitability. This is particularly disconcerting because ScienceDirect provides links to full-text, dependent on the subscriptions of the institution the researcher is affiliated with. Even worse is the fact that many abstracts do not include measures of absolute effect. A study by King et al. found that in 96 Cochrane and 94 non-Cochrane reviews only 34 (22.5%) reported absolute measures. Sadly Agarwal et al. found that authors seldom report the most patient-important outcomes and absolute effect measures in systematic review abstracts. As King et al remind us, Peer-reviewed reporting checklists of studies, CONSORT and STROBE, recommend publishing both absolute and relative measures of effect whenever possible. The Cochrane Handbook also reminds us that absolute measures are useful when determining an intervention’s likely benefits and likely harms.

Jo Weldon, research coordinator for the Cochrane Oral Health Group, began the discussion of standards in her blog post; she recommended infographics feature: central outcome (does the intervention work?), indicating overall risk, strength of evidence, the publishing Cochrane Review Group’s logo,  and shortened URLs.

A next step could be reviewing PRISMA’s abstract reporting standards and translating those to universal symbols for example. All areas reported in an abstract cannot and do not need to be represented in an infographic, but many can and should be.

Laurel Graham, Evidence-based Dentistry Manager at American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, Cochrane Innovations
Follow me on Twitter: @forestplot


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