graphics warning

Last week I was on a committee to give out a “best paper” award. Of the six nominated papers, two contained graphs that were completely incomprehensible because they had been produced in high-res color but were given to the committee as photocopies. In fact, I think this was 2 out of 2 of all the papers in the competition that had graphs. I’ve seen this happen a lot. I myself have an AJS article whose gray scale graphics, while legible in the original printed journal, are completely illegible in the low-res JSTOR version, or any photocopy you might make of that article. Having been bitten badly by this problem, I am very attuned to it.  Printing on a low-res printer has the same problem as photocopying.   Lots of journal reviewers print out the papers they are reviewing. I personally use “fast draft” to save ink and time when I’m printing most stuff. What do you use?

Advice to the wary: Microsoft standard colors and gray scale are just not going to be distinguishable after photocopying or being printed on a low-res monocolor printer. Some of the colors will be indistinguishable from white, and even the difference between black and light gray will disappear in a photocopy. Simple line graphics with markers are much better.

If you are sure you only want your work read on line, you don’t have to worry about this. Otherwise, the word to the wise is test for readability under adverse conditions.

Author: olderwoman

I'm a sociology professor but not only a sociology professor. I keep my name out of this blog because I don't want my name associated with it in a Google search. Although I never write anything in a public forum like a blog that I'd be ashamed to have associated with my name (and you shouldn't either), it is illegal for me to use my position as a public employee to advance my religious or political views, and the pseudonym helps to preserve the distinction between my public and private identities. The pseudonym also helps to protect the people I may write about in describing public or semi-public events I've been involved with. You can read about my academic work on my academic blog --Pam Oliver

6 thoughts on “graphics warning”

  1. It’s a tricky issue in more advanced applications, because there is a lot of cool stuff people can do with data visualization. So then the question is whether the bar for everyone should be set by the low-res reader.


    1. Agreed. But you need to think about whether you care about the low-res reader (e.g. when your article is copied for a course pack, or submitted to a “best paper” competition). I’m thinking that a web site with the high-res version and the stuff that just cannot be done without high res as an appendix to the low res stuff is perhaps a compromise.

      But, as I have noted elsewhere, if you are doing public work that you hope has an impact, you should assume that things will be photocopied and plan for that.

      Also, it turns out that a lot of stuff can just as readily (even more readily) be presented in line graphs with markers, if you realize that matters. Just letting Microsoft default to its color set is not in your best interest.

      One thing that annoys me is the lack of a good default black and white scheme with markers and line types and patterns instead of colors in both Excel and Stata. s1mono in Stata isn’t too bad but is still gray scale, not black and white.


  2. I’m increasingly into graphics that conveys at least three dimensions of data, which in practice means color. PUP’s artists did a pretty heroic job of converting my book’s graphs into grayscale but they’re still harder to read than the original color versions.

    I’ll be with you when people start requiring 3D glasses to view their visualizations. I don’t need to get a visual strain headache from doing a lit review.


  3. Let me be clear, I do recognize that there are advanced graphics that need color or high res. The specific cases that prompted this post were NOT such graphics. They were actually just line graphs and Venn diagrams. They could easily have been produced as black and white line drawings and been just as clear, if not clearer, than the color originals. The authors just didn’t think about the issue. As I said, I got burned badly with some key figures in an AJS article that are unreadable in JSTOR.

    My concern is that well-taken defense of why some graphics need to be in color and high res, and even a discussion about why on-line appendices are increasingly important, should not deflect the warning from young people (and others) who are not attending to the difference in different technologies as they plan their figures.


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