By now, most of us know that openness in research is critical. We know the importance of ensuring that primary research objects, such as data, publications, methods, code and review, are made openly and transparently available, with the right to reuse or re-purpose.  What is sometimes left out of these discussions is the importance of a broader realm of works and media that researchers often use in their practice, specifically  visual representations.

Humans are visual creatures – as Aristotle professes, “the soul never thinks without an image”. Should the reader be in doubt of a such a claim, this excellent infographic, which explains why we like infographics, may be persuasive.

In science and academic research, we routinely construct and use visual representations. Graphics and images express difficult concepts in cognitively optimal ways, and they give us insights into data in ways that words or arbitrary symbols cannot. We all benefit from representations that help us communicate, explore, clarify, or critique our ideas.

Sometimes our visual objects are the actual data themselves, or they may be the end result of a long scientific analysis. At other times, graphics in the form of visual narratives are consciously designed to support the communication of complex or highly abstract concepts, or to facilitate some aspect of a workflow. While the art and science of effective visual communication is a field unto itself, the end products, and the various tools and component elements that we use to create such representations, are valuable and reusable resources.

Reference: Ernst Haeckel - Kunstformen der Natur (1904), plate 46: Anthomedusae. Copyright: Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0  (via Wikimedia Commons)

Reference: Ernst Haeckel – Kunstformen der Natur (1904), plate 46: Anthomedusae. Creative Commons Public Domain Mark 1.0 (via Wikimedia Commons)

In addition to analysis and data visualisation, where visual representations constitute a core part of the research workflow, we use graphics for all sorts of reasons — including presentations, slides, posters, conceptual diagrams, websites, and animations. These artifacts may be used to communicate with our peers, as educational materials, in public engagement efforts; they might be co-opted as organisational branding, or supplied to the media for journalistic pieces.

While academia is granted certain freedoms with the use of copyrighted materials, these legal exceptions do not allow us to reuse visual works as broadly as we need to; this is why we need scientific graphics that use open and permissive licenses.

Let’s consciously use open principles and make it easier to create, find, share, reuse, and adapt our graphics for science. Having more options available may not necessarily make one a better designer, but it can only help to have better materials from which we can create clear depictions of complex ideas.

So, readers, what openly licensed tools or resources do you use to present or communicate science visually? Add your suggestions or thoughts in the comments and let’s pool our graphical riches.

Cameron McLean is a PhD Candidate at the University of Auckland and an Open Science Advocate.

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