by Andre on 11 June 2007
One of the most important parts of scientific communication is making figures that convey your results clearly and compellingly. These days, that means using software to arrange plots and images from other programs, add labels, and often draw simple cartoons or schematics to illustrate the central ideas. There are several features that I consider important for this kind of graphics software. It must support a variety of file formats and be able to export publication quality images. It should have convenient alignment tools so that your images can be easily centered with respect to each other or arranged into arrays. Importantly, the drawing tools should be flexible, give a clean professional looking end product, and not be to difficult to learn. These are not very stringent requirements as far as graphics applications go.
Since most science is collaborative (it’s rare to see single author papers in most journals), it’s also useful for each person involved in the project to have access to the same software for making corrections or suggestions for improvement. So the ideal scientific graphics software will also be compatible with several platforms (at least Windows and Mac) and cheap (preferably free).
Unfortunately, because of its ubiquity, Powerpoint is often the default choice for making figures despite its failure to meet most of the requirements outlined above. This is not acceptable to me, even though I’ve been using it recently because it’s what some of my collaborators use (before submitting anything to a journal I will most likely redo these figures in another program after the final versions have been agreed upon).
I’ve tried Omnigraffle and found that it was pretty good, but as far as I know, it’s only available for Macs. I haven’t used Illustrator but I’ve heard good things. Is it worth the money? Will I be able to convince collaborators to use it despite the cost?
What else is out there? What do you use for making figures?