Go figure! Tips for figure titles and legends

January 12, 2017

Dr. Kathryn Sobek, Filipodia Editor


One of my favorite parts of writing a manuscript is creating the visual representations of my data, a.k.a. the figures! I learned early on as an undergraduate that the beautiful western blots, graphs, and microscope images were useless without figure titles and legends. I received advice several years ago that a figure should be able to stand on its own and tell its story. What my mentor was trying to say is that if a reader looks at the figure and the figure title and legend, then they should have a basic understanding of what I did, what the results were, and what I concluded. Here are five tips for getting your figures to stand on their own.

  1. Use the title to state your conclusion.If there are multiple panels to your figure, then the title should describe all of the parts of the figure. For this reason, I find it helpful to state the main conclusion of all of that data in the title (e.g. ABCG2 expression decreased after Ko143 treatment). In some cases, a descriptive title of the experiments is also appropriate (e.g. Localization of ABCG2 in vitro and in vivo).
  2. Use concise methods.The bare minimum methods needed to understand the figure are included in the legend (the reader can always refer to the Materials and Methods section for more details). The following list includes some of the information you may want to include: name of the cell line/animal model/tissue used; the method (e.g. western blot, flow cytometry, microscopy, etc.); pertinent reagents such as treatment drugs or inhibitors; the number of replicates or total sample size; the control; and any statistical analyses.
  3. Briefly state the results. If you used your title to state the conclusion, then this may be unnecessary in the legend. However, if your title was descriptive, usually one sentence summarizing the data is sufficient. P-values and/or other statistics are appropriate to include in the figure legend as well.
  4. Explain the arrows, symbols, colors, etc.It is important to clarify what any arrows, symbols, colors, etc. in the figure mean. The explanation of these symbols should be included in the figure legend, but not in the main text of the manuscript. Also, if there is a key within the figure, then another explanation in the legend is unneeded.
  5. Describe each panel. If there are multiple panels in your figure, then each panel of your figure requires a brief explanation.

Remember to check the author guidelines to the journal you are submitting your manuscript to. Some will give a word limit for the figure legends or request that methods are excluded. Also, many journals request that the figure legends are included at the end of the manuscript text (typically after the references) without the figures, which are usually uploaded as separate files.