- Oct 27, 2021
- 13 min read
How to design an effective graphical abstract: the ultimate guide
All researchers know this story by now.
We spend months writing and revising our manuscript to absolute perfection. We feel pretty proud of our work, and we’re certain our target journal is going to roll out the red carpet and embrace it with open arms.
Alas, something unexpected happens…
We hit a massive roadblock at the tail-end of the manuscript submission process, simply because we don’t have a “graphical abstract.”
“A graphical what?!” we exclaim, throwing our arms in the air.
“What on earth IS this thing preventing us from submitting our amazing manuscript? This is going to be a massive waste of time!”
So, what’s the point you say?
You’re about to learn exactly how important graphical abstracts are, AND how to nail them right the first time!
Let’s talk about the purpose of graphical abstracts, what they should look like, and how you can easily create one to stay competitive with your research.
What on earth is a graphical abstract?
Let’s start by clarifying what a graphical abstract (GA) is NOT.
But first imagine this. . . it’s late at night.
After several hours of reformatting your paper to the guidelines, you finally hit that SUBMIT button, go to bed, and pray that your manuscript is accepted.
Then at the last minute, something really (really!) frustrating happens. Your target journal requires a “graphical abstract” to be submitted along with your paper, and you can’t move forward without one!
So, what do you do?
You have three choices:
1) Scream and damn the day you decided to become an academic (oh the memories…)
2) Design a graphical abstract from scratch (remember, it’s half-past midnight already).
3) Grab the prettiest figure from your paper and pretend it’s a graphical abstract (you know, the statistically significant graph from Figure 3.1A!)
Look, chances are you’re not a graphic designer, and creating a masterpiece with PowerPoint is out of the question. So I’m certain you’d choose Option 1 or Option 3. . . and then pay a VERY steep price for it. If your journal allows it, there may be an Option 4 for submitting a video abstract . We can compare and contrast the options later. Today we’re talking specifically about graphical abstracts.
And on that note, let’s get one thing straight: a graphical abstract should not be a copy of the best figure in your paper. N E V E R.
So if it’s now 3 am and you’re tempted to do that, go to bed! Or, keep reading.
What’s the purpose of a Graphical Abstract?
Now that we’ve clarified what a GA should not be, let’s nail down its purpose.
A graphical abstract is used to visually and concisely summarise your manuscript and its main message. It tells a clear and concise story , and how it works in your favour depends on who is reading.
If your peers are reading: A GA becomes a promotional tool that positions your paper to stand out in places like social media . As the name suggests, a GA has the same purpose as a traditional abstract. But with 7,000+ peer-reviewed articles being published daily, nobody has the time to read a 250-word abstract. GAs work like movie posters: to grab attention and drive traffic to your paper (the equivalent of the movie). What’s more, they even have the power to double the number of times your article is read . Incredible!
If a non-academic is reading: They don’t speak the scientific jargon, and the blocks of text and the boring black-and-white figures just don’t do it for them (can you blame them?). Instead with a well-designed GA, these people can finally become acquainted with, understand and appreciate, your research. A GA extends the reach of your research beyond your peers. A GA is clear and to the point, just like if you were to explain your scientific profession at a dinner party . The lay person appreciates short and sweet explanations, not a full lecture!
Do they really work?
Graphical abstracts have been shown to improve the reach of new scientific publications.
One study used Twitter to quantify the effect of including a graphical abstract in the promotion of new publications. The researchers compared Twitter posts with and without GAs over one year, using each post as its own control. They found that the reach of posts with GAs were dramatically greater than those without.
Tweets with GAs received a 7.7-fold increase in Twitter impressions , a 8.4-fold increase in retweets , and a 2.7-fold increase in article visits . We’ve even compiled this same study into a GA below, check it out!
Who will read them?
The first question you should ask yourself is, who do I want to reach with this GA? Am I just interested in reaching my small community of peers interested in my obscure science or am I interested in going beyond?
There is a lot of research out there that is hyper-technical and interests only a limited number of experts. If that’s your case, great! You know who you are talking to: the big cheeses of the field.
If you feel that this is your case, I have a surprise for you. You have total freedom in the style of graphical abstract you can use. Because your audience has an expert level of understanding of the subject, you have the freedom to go technical or not. You can decide to show them complex diagrams and p -values or hook them in with a funny comic with a highly nerdy joke that maybe 8 people in the world will understand.
It is up to you.
But what if you wanted to share your work with your next door neighbour, or your grandma?
(… assuming neither of them are scientists in your field…)
Science has traditionally been for (guess what) scientists. That’s why Open Access publishing is a super trendy topic. The idea of removing paywalls is great… for scientists. However, is this really enough to make science truly “open”? The paywall is one barrier, but what are the others? And how can a GA help?
Comprehension is the greatest barrier of all. And it’s the barrier that the general public or layman audience can’t break on their own.
Let’s help them out by using these tips on your GA.
Context: you need to provide some context because otherwise a non-expert won’t be able to appreciate the relevance of your research.
No jargon: Some people call it Jargon Monoxide because it asphyxiates audiences. It is true, not being able to understand a few words will cause the reader to switch off and think that this is just not for them.
The “so what?” factor. The reason why your research is relevant might be obvious to your peers, but it is definitely not obvious to Joe and Jane next door. Tell them in plain English why this matters to their lives.
Styles of graphical abstracts
Let’s now talk about the fun stuff! Style!
When it comes to GA’s, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all, cookie-cutter template. Scientists and artists from around the world have explored a variety of approaches and styles .
So while there are no concrete rules about what a GA should look like, we’re familiar with a number of popular styles and how each one fits a certain audience.
Let’s have a look at a few examples of some different styles and where they sit in the Experts-Public spectrum .
Style 1: The classic diagram
This is a more traditional style of GA that’s been around for a while. Using GAs like this wasn’t uncommon in the chemistry field a few decades ago, given that chemistry is such a visual topic.
You’d notice that there is no background context and it’s full of technical jargon. If the target audience is other experts then great, they’ll get it. But this is not suitable for any other kind of audience.
Style 2: The p-value aficionado
This is called a ‘Visual Abstract’. It’s very popular in the medical field, and usually consists of vertical or horizontal panels. It’s a little more accessible than the previous style, with some easily recognisable icons and some text to guide the reader. But, it’s still geared towards other scientists.
Style 3: The infographic
In the infographic style, there’s less emphasis on data and more emphasis on the main scientific message and the “so what” factor.
As the most versatile style, it provides a good middle ground on the accessibility spectrum. It starts with a sentence that provides some background context, and the images are clear and interesting. What’s important is the use of a large eye-catching graphic that draws people’s attention.
Style 4: The comic strip
Here we can play with our knowledge of pop culture, humour and artistic freedom.
A comic-style is perfect for telling your scientific story in a fun, whimsical way which can include metaphors or real-world references. This is by far the most accessible way for the public to understand the intentions behind the science, without going into the nitty-gritty detail.
The last style is a comic style and is clearly aimed at the general public. It’s visually appealing with some custom graphics, and it uses humour to convey the key scientific message: opening up the target audience to engage with everyone.
How can I design one?
Before we dive in, let’s establish one unbreakable rule.
Your GA will be CLEAR and CONCISE . Got it? Good.
What’s that? You’ve got an awesome multi-dimensional plot with 8 colours? Great!
Keep it in the paper, that’s where it belongs.
Got a beautiful table with 20 rows of significant p-values? Amazing!
Let’s keep this rule in mind as we work through the following steps.
Step 1: Planning the content
Once you’ve identified your target audience, let’s decide on the content, starting with the text.
While you do need some text to provide context and to guide the reader through the graphics, you’ll need to keep it as short as possible: definitely less than 80 words.
What to write
We’re huge advocates of the And - But - Therefore format of storytelling invented by Dr Randy Olson in his book “Connection” which one of our favourite science communication books of all time!
The ‘And’ is the context (background), the ‘But’ is the hook that holds the reader’s attention (knowledge gap), and the ‘Therefore’ is what you found (results and conclusions). You can read more about this format of storytelling here . We can leave out the methods (unless you’re writing a methods paper!). If your reader is interested, they can find them in all their nitty-gritty glory in the full paper.
Now that you have your target audience in mind, let’s decide on the content, starting with the text.
You do need some text to provide context and to guide the reader through the graphics, but keep it as short as possible. And anyway, the clearer your graphics are, the fewer words you’ll need!
How to write it
If you’re talking to experts, you might have some technical words, but if you’re engaging with the public you’ll need to stay away from all jargon. Remember that jargon monoxide is lethal!
Step 2: Concept
Crack your knuckles because now we’re getting to work on how your GA will look. On paper, or in your design software, make the first draft.
If you’re particularly arty, roughly draw the key graphics that you’ll polish up later. If not, don’t worry, just keep in mind where you want to put in the graphics, and afterwards, we’ll track down the best the internet has to offer.
Ask yourself where your GA is going to be distributed most, because this will determine its size. If you’re submitting it to a journal, you’ll need to follow their instructions. Or maybe you just want to make a splash on social media. Twitter, Instagram etc. each have their own preferred sizes, and this determines whether or not your GA will be cropped when viewed on mobile devices etc. Decide which platform will give your GA the best chance of being seen, and size it accordingly.
Most things are either read left to right, or top to bottom. The easiest way to lay things out neatly are by arranging text and figures in panels, which could be connected by an arrow or numbering system. We’ve covered this in detail for scientific posters , and luckily the same principles apply.
No, this isn’t astronaut terminology. Negative space just means space on your GA that’s not filled with stuff. It's a resting spot for the eyes.
Step 3: Designing
This is the most important part. This is what first grabs the reader’s attention when they start scrolling through Twitter, still half-asleep, while they eat breakfast. It should be big, bold, and capable of landing a solid impression. One glance should give your topic away. So, naturally, this isn’t the place to put Figure 3.1A of your manuscript!
The reason we’re choosing your image first is because, unless you’re making your own from scratch, the image will determine which colours you can use for the rest of the GA. We’ll go into more detail in the next section.
You can outsource modifiable images legally through The Creative Commons Search Engine , and there are sites dedicated to this, including PixaBay and PNG Tree . For photos, check out Unsplash . Some sites may ask for accreditation, so make sure to follow individual guidelines.
Or maybe you’re keen on drawing everything from scratch? We’ve got handy tips for that too .
So now, what software will you use to produce your GA? We’ve previously covered our personal recommendations for free and paid illustration software , so check out what suits your skill level and/or budget!
If you’re using an image you found on the web, then this step is easy. You’re going to sample the colours from that image using the Eyedropper Tool . It exists in every design software (even Microsoft PowerPoint!). Doing this will keep a consistent palette of colours throughout your GA.
Choosing colours from scratch? It is great fun to go freestyle, but there are literally an infinite number of colours out there, so how do we choose the 3 to 5 that we need?
Simple. Search “infographic colour palette” in Google Images and find one that you like and that is appropriate to your theme.
Marine biology? Well then, you can’t go wrong with some shades of blue.
Plant ecologist? How about a couple of greens and a nice brown?
Once you’ve found a colour combination that you like, use the Eyedropper tool to sample them, and hey presto, you’ve got your palette.
Pro tip 1: You can even install an eyedropper tool on your web browser. ColorZilla is a good one for Google Chrome.
Pro tip 2: Adobe Colour Wheel is a nice way of getting complementary colours based on colour theory - don’t worry, it’s easy to use.
OK, background, we want something eye-catching, so that means a photo, right? Nope! A texture? Double nope. Anything too busy will make your text and graphics hard to read.
A solid colour is perfect . We can be a bit more adventurous than white, but let’s not get carried away: save the hot pink for your underwear drawer.
Have you ever stared at a blank Microsoft Word page for over an hour, just because you were busy choosing a font?
Good. Because font choice is incredibly important!
We’ve covered fonts in detail before , but in a nutshell, this is what you’ll need to consider:
You’ll need a font without serif, that is sans serif.
Not only does sans serif sound cool (hey, look at you speaking French), these fonts are easier to read and appear more modern. So it’s goodbye Mr. Times New Roman , hello Mrs. Arial .
Wait. Comic Sans is sans serif , does that mean you can use it? N O P E. Just don’t! Every time a scientist uses Comic Sans a graphic designer dies
What about font size? Well, it depends on how large you make your GA in your software. Here’s a guide. Make your GA full-screen on your computer monitor. Can you read the text from a metre or two back? If so, then your text is probably big enough.
Do you need a title? Not necessarily. You might not have enough space. But, if you think it’ll help your GA to be CLEAR and CONCISE, go for it. You have my blessing.
If your GA is shared and used by other people, then you want your audience to be able to find your work. Include the title of your paper, the names of the authors, the year of publication, the journal, the DOI, and maybe even a QR code !
If you are a Microsoft aficionado, you can use PowerPoint to make your GA - just be aware that it has its limits. If you fancy your design skills and have time to invest in the steep learning curve, use Affinity Designer, Adobe Illustrator or Indesign. But if you want something more user-friendly (and free!) then check out Canva .
Step 4: Getting ready to release your GA into the wild
Congratulations on putting together your masterpiece. This is new territory, so you should be proud. But what’s next?
Take a break and come back to your GA with fresh eyes. Note what your eyes are drawn to first. Is this the first thing you want your audience to see? If so, then you’ve planned your GA well.
Do the elements of your GA align well? Good alignment will give your GA a professional look, and it’ll keep my Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder under control too, so thanks.
Get some feedback
Different people interpret images, symbols and icons differently. So something you think is obvious might not be to others. Remember the first part of our unbreakable rule? ‘CLEAR’.
Get feedback from people within your target audience. Your friends, if you’re targeting the public, and your colleagues if you’re targeting other academics. Even if this is the case, your friends are a good tool here too. If they can understand it, then you’ve done your job well.
If you designed your poster with professional software, you’ll have the ability to control the colour profile. Nothing complicated, there are two options: RGB and CMYK. The first one is for digital use, and the second one is for printing — pick the first one. That’s all you need to know.
Saving the file
Always keep your source file, in case you need to edit it later. But save your output as a .PNG (this is best for screens). If this isn’t available a .JPEG is good too.
Posting to social media
When posting on social media don’t forget to include the URL link pointing to the article’s page. This will not only help drive traffic to your paper but will also make your social media post visible by the Altmetric algorithm. If you don’t know what Altmetric is…let us fill you in, check out our awesome infographic.
Include any relevant hashtags in your post, and tag your co-authors. You should mention the journal, your institute and funding bodies too. This is not only good practice but could lead to a powerful re-tweet by an account with a large following. Garnish your post with some emojis and serve.
And that's the whole recipe!
A graphical abstract is a visual summary of your work. Not a recycled Figure 3.1A!
Plan your design around your desired target audience.
Less is more! Recite after me. Your GA will be CLEAR and CONCISE.
Haven’t got the time to make one yourself?
No worries, we’re here to help!
At Animate Your Science we help researchers from all around the world stand out and have an impact. And an eye-catching, show-stopping graphical abstract is exactly what you’ll need to get started!
Our team of science communicators and designers can turn your research into an infographic or animation that will turn heads. Check out our gallery to find a style that suits you!
Explore how we can help you to unleash your impact by contacting us today !
Dr Juan Miguel Balbin
Dr Tullio Rossi
#graphicalabstract #Twitter #infographic
Tell Them a Story: How to Avoid the Standard Boring Presentation
Best examples of graphical abstracts
What’s better: graphical abstracts or video abstracts?
Description: Everything you need to know to design an effective graphical abstract to communicate your science story.
A graphical abstract is a single image that gives your reader the main message of your science story. In this video, we introduce the tips you need to make a better graphical abstract. Plan ahead: put pencil to paper and sketch out your story. Shiz shows us how to choose colors, contrast and saturation that enhance our illustrations. Consistency is key: unify arrow and line styles in your graphical abstract. De-clutter your figure to help readers know what’s new, exciting and novel about your research right away. Put these tips into action when you create your next graphical abstract!
Meet the expert: Shiz Aoki, CEO and co-founder of BioRender, shares her 10+ years of expertise as a distinguished science illustrator to help you bring your science to life - visually.
For those that are brand new to BioRender here is a sneak peek into the platform. It's a beautiful drag and drop interface with thousands of vector based icons ready for you to use for your images. Today's focus will be graphical abstracts.
What is a graphical abstract? Let's start with the really simple definition so that we're all on the same page about what a graphical abstract is.
I think we all cover very different fields of life science and beyond, so examples I use in this webinar will skew a little heavy towards cell biology. But, the tips I'm covering will be very ubiquitous and totally applicable to any type of science figure you're making.
So a graphical abstract, in our simple terms, is a single image that is intended to give your reader an immediate understanding of the story or article's main message. Your graphical abstract should actually be distinct from figures or diagrams in the rest of the article itself. i.e. It should be an overview as opposed to one of those panel figures in the results section.
So I actually interviewed a Cell Press editor prior to this just to get a sense of what the common mistakes are that they see when they receive submissions for a graphical abstract. Cell Press has made the use of graphical abstracts very popular.
The advice was that the number of words used to describe the graphical abstract should actually be less than the number of words in the abstract. But suffice it to say that if you go the reverse order where you actually describe your graphical abstract in words, it should actually be less than the abstract.
Abstracts usually have a word limit (Ex. 300-500 words) however, graphical abstracts do not have a word limit nor does it have a content limit. That's where we get into a little bit of trouble here because people tend to cram everything that we weren't able to say in the abstract into the picture. And what this editor specifically found is that a lot of authors used it as an opportunity to cram in information that otherwise would not have fit in the word limit. It actually should be the opposite. It should be a lighter version of the abstract, perhaps take 70% of what was said and depict it in an illustration form.
These are the general categories that we're going to follow:
Layout and Story Flow
The first thing I like to highlight is layout and storyflow. We always recommend starting by sketching your story on paper, whether that's the back of an envelope or lined piece of paper, just something to get your thoughts down. We find that there really is no replacement for paper and pencil. Sometimes you can use a clean BioRender canvas and throw on a bunch of icons and maybe drag it around to get a general sense of composition. If you're good with Photoshop or Illustrator, you can also use that, but I find starting on paper to be the best.
We love to follow one or two of these simple compositions [shown at 10:25]. It's really hard to follow the content of a figure if things are flying around. Generally speaking, it should fall left to right or top to bottom (the direction of gravity). Naturally we like to read top to bottom.
So the first tip regarding layout and story flow is treating our thought process or creating a diagram to something as silly as a ‘spot the difference’ game. When we were kids, you probably played the spot the difference game where you had to divert your eyes from left to right and look at the differences between the two images. That's actually pretty analogous to the way scientific figures are composed, especially when you have a disease state and a normal state, or a normal state and maybe a control and a variable. There tends to be a lot of visual comparisons.
When you do compose diagrams, we highly recommend making sure that things are generally aligned and similar in horizontal alignment. So, for example, you can create some alignment grid lines here. If the left and right are now aligned, it actually wouldn't read as well because the eye would have a little bit of trouble comparing left and right and seeing what has changed. I can kind of see it if I really strain my eye and read closely. It's a lot friendlier for your audience if you are doing a comparison of normal and abnormal, that these are exactly aligned left to right or top to bottom.
You've probably been in a situation where you feel like you know, your figure feels cluttered and you don't know how to fix it. A lot of the time what's happened is that the reading order or the composition has gone a little bit astray. Try to track the reading order of your figure with a marker or your eyes. If it’s not consistent or clean, this may be what’s causing the confusion.
Sometimes it's frustrating because in design, there is no right or wrong answer. It actually takes a little bit of jigging around, nudging things left and right and creating a hierarchy of text or a hierarchy of arrows.
Color (association, temperature, contrast)
Whether you like it or not, if you start to color your diagram so that some elements match in color, your audience is going to automatically start to create associations simply because they are colored the same even if you didn't intend to.
Sometimes you run out of colors to use, but be careful with your color choice and color association. Along that same vein, color and shapes do get associated very closely. When in doubt, go with as simple a color as possible for something like text (ex. White and black).
Another thing is to really limit your color palette. This is something that I see quite often, and that's the desire to fill your image with color. I wouldn't come in and start to make the text all colorful, for example. That just starts to add unnecessary layers, complications and other dimensions into your diagram that are not necessary.
One little tip I like to always highlight here is to understand when to use cool colors versus warm colors. Stick with warm colors, for harmful things in the body Ex. bacterial infections, cancers, virions, pathogens, inflammation, etc. And then, something like a blue or a green (a cooler tone) for all the good guys in the story.
Probably the number one mistake we see in graphical abstracts is contrast. You hear us talk about this a lot in other webinars, but it is definitely worth repeating here. We often see middle toned colors on top of middle toned colors. That's where we're getting into trouble because those foreground elements or the items layered on top tend to disappear because they're too close in color value (the darkness or lightness of that color is too similar to the thing that it's layered on top of). And what happens is it totally disappears if you're color blind, if you had to print this in black and white, if you had a poor quality monitor at home, etc.
A nice gut check is to use our preview in grayscale mode in BioRender. Another way to combat that contrast problem is to use our opacity slider. Don't be afraid to use different opacities when you're layering objects like this to make the point of your story really stand out.
Proper use of arrows
I'm just going to focus on how to label your diagram better because this is gonna save you a lot of clutter in your next diagram, hopefully. So instead of using a simple arrow, which I usually see when people label their diagrams and having an arrow just pointing to the thing, I would replace this arrow with a dot. It will give you a cleaner result and doesn’t give you this sort of dead spider look with the lines going in all directions. You can actually use a line that is parallel to the word that it's labeling.
And if you want to review, this is available in our worksheets category in the templates category as six different ways to create lines in the BioRender. [ link to template ]
Decluttering your figure (alignment and spacing)
A tip is to use the align function in BioRender for some of your labels and make sure that they're all horizontally aligned. Also, don't ignore the vertical alignment that can make figures that much cleaner. Sometimes what I see is that we ignore vertical alignment while the horizontal alignment is pretty well and good so what I like to do is create some gridlines to align your diagram a little bit better.
If you go into a professional design studio, you'll probably see everyone's monitors covered in these guidelines, just something that designers notoriously love to use because they don't trust their eyes. And if they're available, why not use it? You can also hide the gridlines temporarily if it looks noisy and you can't see the rest of your figure.
To clean up the diagram more, you can shrink down some things in your diagram that probably don't need that much real estate and get white space opened up in my diagram.
Creating engaging graphical abstracts can improve scientific publication rates and allows you to easily share your research in presentations and social media.
Graphical abstracts are becoming increasingly essential science communication tools for presentations and publications. Many academic journals now require scientists to submit graphical abstracts and the rise of social media has made summary images a standard expectation for communicating complex information. This article shows well-designed graphical abstract examples and also provides links to free templates.
What is a Graphical Abstract?
A graphical abstract is a visual representation of a research project. The goal of the abstract is to create a clear story of your scientific method and results that is quickly understood by your audience. The best graphical abstracts use a combination of data, illustrations, and formatting to craft this clear story. Below is an example of a well-designed graphical abstract that uses left-to-right formatting to tell the story of gathering initial data from TBI patients, treating patients with two treatment paths, and patient outcomes.
Learn how to design good graphical abstracts using PowerPoint and Adobe Illustrator
Graphical Abstract Examples
One great way to start brainstorming for your own graphical abstract is to look at examples to see which ideas and formats might best fit your own research story. Below is a review of the best graphical abstract examples, as well as links to download these free templates for your own designs.
My top recommended graphical abstract design uses bold title text with left-to-right formatting for the details below it. This format is easy for people to understand and can be used to compare methods to results, describe a sequence of events, or show a series of scientific conclusions. Below are examples of my recommended left-to-right designs with 1-4 columns.
Click here to download these free graphical abstract templates for Adobe Illustrator and PowerPoint.
Another good option is to use a top-to-bottom formatting. This is an especially good design idea if your data output goes from a large quantity to a small quantity or if the research results naturally go from top to bottom, such as north to south on a map or from the atmosphere to the Earth. Below are examples of top-to-bottom graphical abstract designs with 1-4 rows.
Circular and Unique Graphical Abstracts
The final recommended formats are circular and unique formats such as timelines and Venn diagrams. These are less commonly used and should only be selected if the summary of your research is easier to understand using one of these designs than the left-to-right formatting.
Design Tools to Customize Graphical Abstracts
Knowing how to use design tools to create custom graphical abstracts has become an increasingly essential skill for researchers. Below is an example of a graphical abstract design that was customized using biological diagram templates and a list of the top design tools that scientists use to create graphical abstracts and scientific illustrations.
Click here to view more scientific drawings of animals, cell types, and laboratory equipment that can be used in graphical abstracts.
- Top rec ommended software for advanced scientific and graphic design. This is the digital design tool used by most professional scientific illustrators.
- This tool allows for full customization of graphical abstracts by creating high resolution vector designs where every pixel can be adjusted to make the perfect final design.
- Learn more about how to get Adobe Illustrator as a student or scientist .
- Costs: $240-252 for annual subscription
- Design software that is similar to Adobe Illustrator but with slightly fewer design features. This is a good affordable alternative to Adobe Illustrator.
- This tool allows for customization of graphical abstracts by creating high resolution vector designs where every pixel can be adjusted to make the perfect final design.
- Visit here to purchase the software: https://affinity.serif.com/en-us/designer/
- Cost: $70 one time payment
- PowerPoint is a commonly used software for scientists and has become increasingly good at allowing researchers to make custom designs using their shapes, lines and arrow features.
- This tool has limited design features, but these are not always needed if you know how to use PowerPoint well.
- Visit this page to learn more about purchase options .
- Cost: Free versions and $70-160 for full software
Google Slides and Google Drawing
- Google Slides and Google Drawing are comparable tools to Microsoft PowerPoint. Scientists do not use these as often as PowerPoint, but it is still a good software to use if you are more familiar with Google products.
- The design features are limited compared to Adobe Illustrator and Affinity Designer, but you can still use this software to create high quality graphical abstracts.
- Cost: Free with Google account
There are also tools such as BioRender that allow you to create graphical abstracts with images that you can copy/paste into designs. However, this tool has limited customization options and is very expensive if you want to download your work as high resolution images that are used for publications and presentations. Read this article to learn more about the costs, pros, and cons of popular scientific design tools .
Use graphical abstracts to promote research.
There are many different options to share your research with the public and your peers. Having a well-designed graphical abstract makes it easy to format the designs to share via presentations, scientific websites, and social media. This is a great way to increase interest in and awareness of scientific research.
In order to share your graphical abstract via social media, you may need to adjust your designs so that the image can be best formatted for different platforms. Each social media platform has their own preferred dimensions for the images you share. For example, if you want to share your graphical abstract on both Instagram and LinkedIn, you will want to adjust one version to fit a square image for Instagram and you probably won't need many adjustments to share a landscape image on LinkedIn. Below are examples of graphical abstract image formatting for social media posts on Instagram, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter.
Graphical Abstract Design Summary
All of the examples and tools described in this article can help you design impressive graphical abstracts and share them with a wider audience. Use the simple process below to start your own design.
- Step 1. Choose a design plan that looks good to you, best represents your data, and matches your intended scientific journal's formatting requirements.
- Step 2. Create a draft of your design by drawing on paper or use digital design tools such as Adobe Illustrator, Affinity Designer, or PowerPoint to arrange your illustrations, text, and graphs. Learn more about graphical abstract design options by clicking on the resources below:
- Download free graphical abstract templates and view other science images
- PowerPoint Graphical Abstract Tutorial Video
- Adobe Illustrator Graphical Abstract Tutorial Video
- Step 3. Adjust the design formatting and colors until the main story of your research is clear.
- Read this article to learn more about data visualization design best practices
- Step 4. Share with scientists and the public via presentations, scientific websites, and social media.
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HOW TO MAKE A GRAPHICAL ABSTRACT FOR YOUR SCIENTIFIC PAPER
More and more journals are requiring a graphical abstract when you are submitting your scientific paper. But what is a graphical abstract and how to make a graphical abstract for your scientific paper? In this blog post, multimedia science communicator Dr Gaius Augustus shows you three graphical abstract examples with different graphical abstract designs and answers the most common questions researchers have about graphical abstracts.
Your experiments are finished, your figures created, you’ve even written up a nice manuscript to submit to your target journal. You take a moment to pull up the formatting guidelines from the journal website. Everything seems to be in place – except for that one nagging requirement: a graphical abstract. Let me show you how you can get the most out of your graphical abstract!
What is a graphical abstract?
A graphical abstract or graphical summary in its pure form is a visual representation of the abstract of a scientific paper. I typically see graphical abstracts in two places: social media and journal websites. While journals usually have some guidelines on the length and format of abstracts, there are often no strict guidelines for graphical abstracts.
There are several schools of thought on what information one should put in a graphical abstract. Some suggest including everything that is part of the written abstract , such as background information, the problem the study is solving, as well as the results, conclusions and implications of the study, and perhaps even the methods that were used. However, graphical abstracts don’t come up in search engines for the scientific literature, such as PubMed or Google Scholar. So, one cannot expect them to take the place of a written abstract. Instead, I tend to think of a graphical abstract as a visualisation that gets across the main idea of your paper.
Instead of including information about experiments you performed or results you obtained, I believe your graphical summary should complement your written abstract. It should give readers a quick overview of how the results fit together into a conceptual or empirical framework, and how that framework impacts your scientific field. Ideally, a graphical abstract provides some background on the research question and gaps in the literature. I recommend you to only mention the methodology if it’s crucial to understand the results. It is best to choose one main graphic that is either the most compelling piece of data or a model that integrates the data into one figure.
How to make a graphical abstract?
There are graphical abstract designs that are most effective for communicating research:
Visual systems models
Visual representations of the proposed model (such as a cartoon)
Let’s take this abstract as an example:
Luke Skywalker, a young orphan living with his uncle on Tatooine, is recruited into the Resistance by Obi Wan Kenobi, the last living Jedi master who has been in hiding from the evil Empire on the remote planet. Luke is informed that his father was a powerful Jedi and is given his father’s lightsaber. It is unknown whether Luke is a Jedi too and whether he can harness the power of the Force. Here, we show that Luke Skywalker is a Jedi who can harness the power of the Force. Through providing training by Obi Wan and challenging Luke through simulated and real battle experiences, we found that in the absence of visual senses, Luke was able to predict the path of incoming lasers and to accurately target a missile. Our findings support a model that exposure and motivation can activate the latent Jedi in the presence of training and challenges but can be hampered by temptation and anger. Overall, this study provides a theoretical framework for the development and activation of a latent Jedi, potentially impacting the ability of the Resistance to challenge the Empire.
How does this translate into the different graphical abstract designs? Let’s consider the first of our graphical abstract examples, a flow diagram of the above abstract:
Flow diagram as graphical abstract
It uses simple shapes such as squares, arrows, and crosses to describe the process. This graphical abstract is rather text-heavy, but the flow diagram gives a decent indication of the methods used, their results, and the impact of the experimental variable.
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The next one of our graphical abstract examples is a visual systems model . It is based on the idea of “what makes a Jedi” and divides it into the factors that activate (green, arrows) or inhibit (red, “T’s”) becoming a Jedi. Notice how this graphical abstract doesn’t include the exact experiments performed and instead focuses on the big picture:
´Visual systems model as graphical abstract
On to the last one of our graphical abstract examples, the visual representation. A cartoon model can bring your particular study into the context of the full model:
Cartoon as graphical abstract
Here we see visual representations of the specific experiments and variables of our study while using the language of a more general model. This graphical abstract design also allows you to add personality to your graphical summary.
So, now you got three graphical abstract examples: the flow diagram, the visual system model and the visual representation. But these are not the only graphical abstract designs! Your perfect graphical abstract will be dictated by both your field and your imagination. I want to encourage you to think outside of the box. Find ways to visualise your research topic in your graphical summary that are clear and concise, and support the written abstract.
How to make a graphical abstract - common mistakes
Before you now get started on your graphical abstract, I want to warn you about the five most common mistakes I see around:
Being too vague. This applies to all parts of your graphical summary, e.g. what you did, how your results fit into the model, and why your study is impactful
Using images flippantly. Every graphic should have a purpose, and a reader should get a general idea of what your scientific article is about from looking at the graphical abstract
Using too much or not enough colour. Colour is important as a way of highlighting concepts and flow. It’s useful for organisation as well. But don’t overdo it. Make sure you are using colour with intention in your graphical abstract.
Too much text. If your graphical abstract has as much text as your written abstract, it’s probably overcrowded.
Not enough white space. White space is the “breathing room” around any piece of text or image, and it’s incredibly important in order for readers to grasp the content of your graphical abstract quickly. Give every element in your graphical summary space and ignore that itch to fill every pixel with something useful.
Common questions about graphical abstract DESIGNS
We now tackled the questions “What is a graphical abstract?”, “How to make a graphical abstract?” and I showed you three graphical abstract examples. But you may have some more questions about making a good graphical abstract design. Here are the answers to questions about graphical abstracts I get all the time:
What program should I use to make my graphical abstract?
You can use any program you want to make your graphical abstract. You can draw with ink/marker and take a picture with your phone. You can use a drawing program such as Adobe Photoshop, Canva or the free and open-source tool Krita. You can also use a vector drawing program like Adobe Illustrator, Inkscape, or Affinity Designer. The images for this post were made using Google’s drawing tools inside Google Docs. Just remember: Getting a fancy program is not going to make your graphical abstract look better, especially if you haven’t given yourself enough time to gain some skill at it.
What image size and format should I use for my graphical abstract?
This should be defined by your journal. If they give you too much freedom, ensure that whatever size you choose has a sufficient resolution at print quality (minimum of 300dpi). Make sure the text is legible without having to zoom in extensively. When in thumbnail view, your graphical abstract shouldn’t look too busy. If the journal doesn’t specify, export the image as a TIF or PNG.
Should I hire an artist to create my graphical abstract design?
If you’re unsure where to start with your graphical summary, you should definitely consider hiring someone to help. There are various artists who can translate your research into a graphical abstract. Just a little tip: Working with someone who has a scientific background may make the process less burdensome.
I hope you got a lot out of these tips! Graphical abstracts are a terrific new frontier that I hope will encourage scientists to think of better ways to visually communicate their research. Good luck!
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Gaius J. Augustus is a multimedia communicator. Trained in fine arts and video production, Gaius switched career tracks to pursue a PhD in science. He now works to communicate science to the world with beautiful infographics, illustrations, and animations. Along the way, he shares what he has learned in hopes that he can improve the public opinion of science by making science more visual and engaging. To get in touch, check out his website or reach out via email: [email protected].
What you need to know about this (admittedly not most exciting) section of a research paper – beyond the basic advice.
Multimedia science communicator Dr Gaius Augustus explains what a graphical abstract is and shows you three graphical abstract examples with different graphical abstract designs. Must-read if you don't know where to start making a graphical abstract for your scientific paper.
Here are the 7 most common mistakes researchers make when writing their scientific paper introduction. Learn how to write a scientific introduction instead.
What discussion sections in scientific papers should and shouldn’t contain.
The abstract is the most important piece of your scientific article. In this post, you’ll get your hands on an exclusive scientific abstract template! Writing a scientific abstract according to the suggested scientific abstract structure will make your paper more likely to get accepted, read and cited.
If the title of your paper doesn’t appeal to your reader, they won’t read it. Here are the mistakes you should avoid making.
Learn which studies to choose as a reference in your paper, what biases to check for, if self-citation is okay and what the ultimate way is to reference studies in the text.
A lot of authors underestimate the importance of figures in scientific papers. Here's how to make scientific figures, including how to write compelling figure legends in scientific papers.
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CAUSE AN EFFECT
Blog on science communication
How to design a graphical abstract
So, you have submitted a paper, and now you want (or need) to create an accompanying graphical abstract – but you’re not sure how. Keep reading, as in this blog we’ll tell you what you should and shouldn’t do if you want to create a good graphical abstract!
A good graphical abstract can help you get impact
Making your own graphical abstract is a great way to help you learn how to communicate your research visually. It can even help you create impact outside of academia. If you are on social media like LinkedIn or Twitter, a well-designed graphical abstract might be the thing that draws people to your paper and gets people interested in your research.
In fact, Sandra Oska and colleagues showed that tweets with graphical abstracts are viewed twice as often, and that they attract five times more engagement. They are also associated with increased Altmetrics (scores that measure the attention your article has gotten across a variety of platforms) than tweets that only contain a citation. That’s why we love these visual summaries!
What is the goal of a graphical abstract?
The scientific journals seem to agree: a graphical abstract should “should allow readers to quickly gain an understanding of the take-home message of the paper” ( Elsevier ) or “readers can absorb the core message of your paper with just a glance” ( Cell Press ). Yet, when we look at their “good examples”, we find that even four or five glances are not enough to understand what those graphical abstracts are actually trying to say.
We’re on a mission to help you make a graphical abstract that does succeed in providing a summary in a single glance.
To be fair, for very complex studies a single-glance summary may be a little ambitious. A good graphical abstract does not need to provide a complete overview of everything you did and found in your study, but it will summarize your findings, intrigue your audience and tempt them to click and read the full article.
Let’s design a better graphical abstract
To show you the best design practices for a graphical abstract, we’ll take you through a few examples.
Consider the abstract below: the original abstract (left) was redesigned by Cell Press (right) and looks cleaner and slicker. We can see that some kind of molecular mechanism was studied, but we still have no idea what the authors contributed to the depicted mechanism. Let us take you along while we go through the steps to make this redesigned abstract more effective.
1 Start with the key message from your paper
First and foremost, you’ll have to think about the key message of your paper. You have probably written a conclusion for your abstract, but you’ll have to transform that message into something even shorter for a graphical abstract. That way, it will nicely fit into your graphic, where it can provide a little bit of context while specifying what you worked on in that context.
Let your reader know what makes your findings unique, or what the added value of this paper is.
To write a good main message, check out our tips to summarize your research into a single sentence in our blog on designing a poster presentation . That single sentence should always be a conclusive statement. And it will become the title of your abstract. Later, we’ll introduce the proper graphics to support this message.
Don’t just copy the title of your paper onto your graphical abstract.
The paper of the abstract we showed earlier is titled “Acid extrusion from human spermatozoia is mediated by flagellar voltage gated proton channel.” It’s not very easy to understand, let alone at a glance, when you’re scrolling past many abstracts. So, we need to rewrite their key message into something a little easier to digest.
The star of their paper is the proton channel Hv1. This channel plays an important role in the activation of sperm cells to help them move through the female reproductive tract. We can summarize this into: “Voltage-gated proton channel Hv1 stimulates motility in human sperm cells”. By moving the most important element to the front of the sentence and simplifying the language, it is now much easier to understand the message. The mechanism through which this happens (‘acid extrusion’, as they call it in their paper title) can then be visualized in the rest of the abstract.
2 Write your title as a conclusion
You might be tempted to make your abstract title a question. While it’s certainly possible and still a good way to provide context; we would suggest inserting your conclusion as a statement if you can. It relieves the viewers of having to draw their own conclusions and it saves you the precious space of having to insert a concluding remark elsewhere in the figure.
3 Tell a story in your abstract
Before you open your design software of choice, think about what you will be putting on display in your abstract. Good graphic design can really enhance good content, but even the best design cannot save content that’s been poorly thought out. Turning your research into a short story can help. You’ve already thought about the most important piece of content – your unique key message – but there are two more things to think about to be able to tell your story.
4 What is/are your primary outcome(s)?
Your primary outcomes form the evidence that supports your key message. Take the most important ones (we suggest limiting it to three) and write them down in single sentences. If you consider it absolutely necessary you can include p-values, but we don’t think it is a requirement for getting your message across (after all, you already selected the most important outcomes and they are more likely to be statistically significant).
5 Which study design and/or methods have you used?
Your methods may provide essential information about the context of your results and help readers interpret your outcomes. Although your methods are a very important part of your paper, not all your methods are equally important to someone viewing your abstract on a place like Twitter. So, which ones are most important? This is how you find out:
1 List all the components that make up your study, e.g.: the species in which the study was performed, the design in which a certain treatment was applied, the sample size and the ways in which your outcomes were measured.
2 Take some time to eliminate the components that don’t particularly strengthen your message, or that are commonplace to your field and therefore implied. You don’t need to include those in your abstract: anyone with an interest can find them in your paper.
How do I decide which methods to include and exclude?
What is and what isn’t important to support your message will vary based on your field of research, but here’s an example: you’ve found an abstract showing that a new molecule reduces tumor growth. Promising, right? But that feeling tends to dissipate a little when you discover that this was merely tested in vitro rather than in mice or a group of patients, or that this was a pilot study with 2 patients instead of a randomized controlled trial with 2000 patients.
In other words, whatever information may change your assessment of the results should be in your abstract. In contrast, it probably won’t matter as much whether they measured this tumor growth using a PET-scan or a CT-scan – the implications remain the same. There is no need to fill a third (or less) of that abstract with an image of a CT-scanner, it will only distract from the main message.
Example of a research story
We’ve written down the story of this article about vitamin D and COVID-19 infection .
Main message: Vitamin D supplementation is associated with lower risk of COVID-19 infection and mortality
Most important method: Retrospective cohort study amongst US veterans receiving vitamin D3 or D2 supplementation.
- Vitamin D2 and D3 supplementation reduced risk of COVID infection by 20 and 28%
- Vitamin D2 and D3 supplementation was associated with a 33% and 25% decrease in mortality within 30 days of infection
6 Make sure your abstract can be understood without the paper
In a graphical abstract, space is limited. So keep it simple and don’t add more than your conclusion, context, primary outcome(s), and most important methods. In fact, these elements are all you need to form a complete story. By keeping it to the point, viewers should be able to understand your abstract and thus the essence of your research without needing any other information. This also means you’ll have to explain abbreviations that are not widely known.
Case study: adding a title for context
Let’s take another look at that Cell Press abstract. We adapted it to make it much easier to understand on its own, as you can see below. We added a title that is the conclusion of the paper for context, we moved around some components to help guide the viewer through the abstract and added more text labels to help viewers interpret what’s going on.
How we improved the abstract:
- We used the conclusion as a title to provide context.
- We made the methods section smaller to remove emphasis.
- We added labels to show the channel states and their effect on sperm motility, as well as labels to show the protons.
- We changed the heading to more clearly show what causes the channel activation and introduced a gradient to emphasize the change in environment.
7 Visualize your methods and outcomes
If you have written down your story, like in the example of vitamin D, you can choose how to visualize your data most effectively. In short: if something becomes clearer when you visualize it, you should visualize it. So don’t use tables when you can use graphs! Of course, whether you can visualize something depends on your research.
Don’t use tables in your graphical abstract (unless your paper is about furniture)
Have you found the missing piece of a molecular mechanism puzzle? You’ll probably want to show where this newly discovered piece fits in, using a diagram.
Have you compared two types of treatment? You’ll want to visualize both legs so that a viewer can easily compare the outcomes. In any case, try to keep your visualization as simple as possible and make them show a single primary outcome.
Do not copy and paste graphs from your paper: not only are they too detailed and difficult to read, they also leave too much room for interpretation by the reader. Instead, simplify the chart to visualize just your main take-away. This may mean you’ll have to find a new, more suitable type of chart to show your main outcome.
Software to help you design
Get some inspiration from resources such as the Data Viz Project , and make your own charts in online programs like Mind the Graph , Infogram , Visme or RAWgraphs . See our article about our favorite design tools for more recommendations.
The possibilities are endless but don’t get carried away; the goal is to keep it simple! If you’re visualizing multiple outcomes, try to be consistent in how you visualize them. Using similar charts next to each other will make them easier to interpret (and make the abstract look better too).
Case study: how to visualize tables and locations
First, we’ll get rid of the table (since tables are not visualizations and very hard to read) and instead create a bar chart. This makes it easier to compare the data points. Is there anything else we can visualize? The study populations, of course! We’re not sure where these territories are nor do we readily recognize their flags, so we’d rather have them placed on a map. Who knows, even if it’s not the aim of the paper, your readers may even walk away with a little more geographical knowledge.
Finally, the original title and conclusion have a lot of overlap, yet the title tells us very little. Do you know what ESKD means? We don’t. So, we wrote the term out in full when we swapped the title for the conclusion. This is important for the non-experts that read your graphical abstract, and it gets rid of the overlap.
- We used the conclusion as a title and spelled out the abbreviation.
- We visualized the data in a graph to draw attention to the differences between populations.
- We simplified the color scheme for a more professional look.
- We used a map to show the approximate locations of the studied populations.
Decide what goes where
Once you have figured out the story and the main visualizations you want to include, you need to bring them together on your canvas. Adhering to the principles listed below will help you guide the viewer through the abstract and will strengthen your story.
Make sure people know how to read your abstract
Generally, for those reading in English it is most natural to read from top to bottom and from left to right. Organize your methods and outcomes in such a way that the order makes sense to the viewer: guide them from one part of your story to the next.
Take a look at the abstract below, again an example provided by Elsevier . If you’re like us, your eyes are shooting all over the place, following arrows that go against your natural direction of reading. It’s unclear where we need to start reading this abstract.
They seem to have discovered a number of things, but what is their key message and order of the information? When we read their paper to find out, it appeared they wanted to tell us that there are several challenges to obtaining placebo drugs in drug trials, but we couldn’t quite get that from this visual.
Use text in your graphical abstract to help viewers understand your message
Despite the name graphical abstract, text is not forbidden. So do not be afraid to use it! We already talked about adding the title to help people understand the abstract. But also think of labels and short descriptions of processes.
An arrow by itself, for example, could mean many things: it could represent a causal effect, a direction or a next step, or it could point to an example. An arrow with the text ‘activates’ above it can only mean one thing. Try to leave as little as possible up to the viewer’s interpretation.
Make sure people know what your arrow means. Does the arrow indicate a reading direction, causal effect, or next step?
Keep the design as simple as possible for a professional look
To make sure your designs don’t look cluttered, use colors, fonts, text sizes and weights sparingly and intentionally. Too many variations of these will only compete with each other for attention, leaving you with the opposite of the hierarchy that you were trying to create. Some tips to simplify the design:
- Choose a maximum of three text sizes of one font. The smallest text can be between 6-8 pt.
- Make sure that the main headings are fatter (a higher font weight) than the body text.
- Choose a single color for your design and vary with shades of this color. Combine it with black, white and grays.
Only use icons if they speak for themselves
Are you tempted to add lots of icons to your abstract – after all, it’s a graphical abstract, isn’t it? Think twice before you introduce them. Many icons are ambiguous in their meaning and do not actually make it easier to digest information. Often, you need both the icon and accompanying text to capture the complexity you need, in which case using only text may be clearer.
We advise you to only use icons to emphasize your point when they speak for themselves and are universally understood. This means they are often used in other contexts to depict the same thing and are thus already familiar to the viewer – think the recycling or biohazard icon. They may also be helpful when you want to show an emotion that is hard to put into text. If you use icons: make sure they all have the same style (outlined or filled, thick or thin lines) to make your abstract look cohesive.
Case study: distill your key message and primary outcomes to tell a story
We have applied our rules to improve the aforementioned abstract about placebos. The authors neatly summarized their key findings and subsequent implications in their article. These main points make a complete story, so they didn’t have to include all the other details in their abstract.
Note how we spread these main points across the abstract and translated their implications into a call to action. We organized the information in accordance with the (Western) natural reading direction. Because their primary outcomes did not have to be compared to each other, there was no need to visualize the data. Instead, we chose some stylistically similar graphics to help people see the problems at a glance.
- We’ve written the information as a story.
- We ordered information in the natural reading direction from top to bottom.
- We used graphics in the same style to make it look more professional.
- We only included the main outcomes.
More tips (as if we haven’t given you enough)
Having taken in all this information, you are almost ready to design your own abstract. But before you do, we have some final comments that you should take into account:
- Check the technical guidelines of the journal before you start: the required dimensions of the image will affect your design. In a landscape orientation you may want to tell your story from left to right, in a portrait or square orientation you may choose differently. Make sure to print some tests while designing to ensure everything is visible and readable at that size.
- Use words that are in line with the language, terms and definitions that were used in the paper to prevent misrepresentation of results.
- Only use images and icons for which you have obtained the appropriate rights (you can find copyright-free icons on Google Fonts , The Noun Project and Flaticons – the latter two require a small fee). Check our favorite platforms for images and icons in our blog post .
- Are you sharing your abstract in a place other than your paper itself? Include a citation to the article so that everyone who’s interested can easily find your paper.
- Read our 16 design tips for scientific reports, posters & graphical abstracts
- And our blog Improve the readability of your text with content design
All right, it’s time to go and make a beautiful and effective abstract for the whole internet to see! If you still have questions or are in doubt about how to tackle your own specific story after reading this blog, you can always contact us at [email protected] or check out our Design Crash Course if you want to learn more.
Disclaimer: we are not critiquing the science and papers behind the abstracts shown in our examples; we are simply suggesting how that science could have been communicated more effectively through an improved abstract.
Written with Floor Baas . Floor is a MSc student of Biomedical Sciences and has a great interest in how science communication can help research reach its potential. During her studies, she has come across many examples of posters, graphical abstracts and presentations, of which some could have benefited from an upgrade. As an intern at The Online Scientist, she’s gained experience in how to help scientists bring across their message to their audience.
About the Author: Liesbeth Smit
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