Academic writing is not an exact science


Is this an image, a figure, or a graph? All right, obviously it is a graph. But how would you display it in your thesis, dissertation (definitely two words that are not standardised), or peer-review paper?

What about a table? Is a table a figure?


Well, as some may know (as least from my Twitter profile), my side gig is revisions (both Portuguese and English) and translations. I was revising a paper and the author chose to name most of their non-text additions as "figure", including a table. For them, it seems, because the table was comprised of text, summarising concepts rather than numbers, it should be defined as figure. (Yes, this is a gif of a table. Yes, I explained the joke.)


The straw that broke the camel's back was that they used an illustration and also named it, you guessed it, a figure. Not knowing how else I could solve this cruel doubt, I took to Twitter, of course. I asked my academic mates, in true open-ended interview question style: "when you see the word 'figure' in a paper, what do you expect to see? Same with the word 'image'." Then I said please and thank you, because I'm not an animal.



Image from PhD Comics

The answers were as diverse as academic fields are, as varied as linguistic branches. Some went with everything can be a figure, except for tables. Some threw in the exception for comics and photographs, things that are quite obviously images. These were usually people who were in fields like photography and comic books. Another only expects photographs as images! Someone brought up figures as flowcharts and diagrams as they are qualitative studies, and images should be again, drawings or photographs, but this time of bacteria or patient exams.


Overall, one explanation I liked was that figures are visual aids to papers, which could be graphs, diagrams, drawings, or photographs. I liked this because of the use of visual aid, something that someone recently noted I should do more of. Being

in the Social Sciences, I tend to go for huge blocks of text, minimise my word count by not adding tables, and hoping people get them. That's not the case though. We are extreme experts and even the people in our field tend to lose focus and miss details when reading something we've written.



In a blog post, it's very easy to add gifs and comics, but in academic writing we need to be precise and consider what helps the reader. Either way, the consensus on my little debate was: 1. read and see what your field subscribes to; 2. when in doubt, a table is a table, everything else can be a figure. Although, because in Portuguese "figura" translates to "image", when it's my own work, I like to be specific and use "graph", "table", "diagram", etc.


One person mentioned suffering abuse from their supervisor because they disagreed on how to name these visual aids. If your supervisor does this THEY ARE BAD SUPERVISORS AND SHOULD BE REPORTED. This is a stupid academic thing and just a curiosity and honestly why anyone should care is beyond me. I just didn't want my client to ask me why I changed their text and not have an answer for them.



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