Presenting your results effectively, part 1: using tables

The display items or illustrations of a scientific research manuscript are used to present the study results and consist of tables and figures.

Figures can include graphs, photographs, drawings, medical scans, schematics, and charts. (In publishing, all illustrations are usually called “figures”.)

Display items are generally used to present large amounts of data in a concise and effective manner. Text can also be used to present results. In fact, simple results that can easily be explained with words or in a single sentence are best presented as text. Display items must always be cited in the text, where you are describing or interpreting the most relevant findings presented in the display item. 

Tables

Tables are generally used to present large amounts of exact values of qualitative or quantitative data, rather than quantitative information such as trends or patterns. Tables can be used to summarize information from the Methods or the Results. When preparing tables, keep in mind that they must be able to “stand alone”, that is, be fully comprehensible without the reader having to refer to the main text. Also make sure that your tables are numbered consecutively.

Titles

Tables should have concise, descriptive, specific titles. The title is normally a phrase rather than a complete sentence and usually does not contain ending punctuation. Some journals have specific requirements for word counts, so you should always check your target journal’s author guidelines when considering your title. Many journals require short titles for tables (generally less than 15 words), but will allow additional explanation in the form of footnotes. Keep in mind that the title should not interpret the results found in the table. That information should only be presented in the text of the results section. 

Length

Try to avoid extensive tables that span two or more pages. Generally, these should be split into two tables, with the aim of presenting only one table per page. If this is impractical, you should consider whether it would be more appropriate to submit the table as supplemental material (if allowed by your target journal).

Remember that journal editors and reviewers often look at the figures early on, so these should be self-contained or “stand-alone” Apart from the main illustrative item and any labeling,  each display item needs a number, a title, a description (legend) that explains the labeling, and any footnotes that explain special information, abbreviations, symbols, or statistics. You can group related display items as one multi-panel figure, but be sure to number or letter the panels and refer to the numbering/lettering in the legend.

Structure

Tables consist of columns and rows, with corresponding column and row headings. Column headings indicate the items below them. They should be descriptive, concise, and consistent in syntax. Row headings are in the leftmost column of the table, and describe the condition represented by each row. The units of measure for the variables being presented should be included in the headings, rather than in the actual data field (cell). 

Data

Data cells make up the body of the table. Data should be presented consistently, especially when rounding values and reporting P-values. A table footnote can be used to include any explanations of abbreviations used in the table, and any other relevant data. There should be no empty data cells, and no unnecessary elements should be included. Make sure you explain and use notation such as NA (not available) or ND (not done), rather than -, /, or 0.Discrepancies in data and statistical methods used should also be included in the footnote. Some journals require the use of specific footnote symbols in a particular order; others prefer the use of lowercase letters. Asterisks (*) are generally reserved for indicating statistical significance. Regardless of the notation you use, all symbols and abbreviations should be defined in a footnote.

Journal-specific issues

Always read the author instructions carefully to ensure that your tables meet the guidelines of your target journal. Some journals may accept tables in spreadsheet format; however, if in doubt, tables should be prepared using the table function in your word processing software. Do not use tabs or the spacebar to create tables. 

Although the requirements for tables vary from journal to journal, excessive use of grid lines is generally discouraged because it may make the table appear cluttered and difficult to interpret. Some journals state that tables should not contain vertical lines, whereas some journals require that all grid lines remain visible. Double line spacing is usually required, although some journals are not specific about spacing. Try to keep your table as simple as possible; color, bold, italics, and highlighting should be avoided. Most journals, both in print and online, will publish tables in black and white only. 

Common mistakes

  • Use of tables to present simple data that can easily be presented more concisely as text.
  • Duplication of data between tables and text. Although some overlap may be unavoidable, you should make an effort to minimize this whenever possible.
  • Not citing tables in the text. During manuscript preparation, text is sometimes shifted and relocated, resulting in table citations appearing in the wrong order. As a final check after all editing or revision rounds, you should carefully check that all tables have been cited in the correct order.

We will discuss Figures in Part 2 of this post, coming soon!

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