Many researchers, especially those of us who conduct fieldwork, have thousands of photos taken during the course of studies we have conducted—of field sites, equipment, procedures, study organisms, and people. Take the photo at left, for example. I took it during a helicopter survey of marsh sedimentation following the 2011 flood of the Mississippi River. The data we collected were ultimately reported in a couple of journal articles, here and here, but most of the photos remain unpublished.
Photos like this, however, are useful in documenting the conditions encountered during field trips, the procedures employed to collect samples, experimental setups, laboratory protocols, as well as many other aspects of the research. In this study, I additionally photographed each sample site from the air and on the ground, generating a visual record of the vegetation and landscape features.
Scientists most often use such research photos in presentations given at conferences or seminars and, to a lesser extent, in journal articles and book chapters. Some of us also share random images through social media (Twitter, Facebook, Instagram). In most cases, though, these photos simply sit in our files and never see the light of day. This is unfortunate, however, because such images represent important and potentially useful information.
How can we put our research images to better use?
There are many possibilities, but I’ll focus on two options in this post, which is to use photos to craft (1) a visual abstract that summarizes a journal article and (2) a narrative that delves into those aspects of research that are not typically described in a paper (the challenges you faced during the study, the importance of your work to society). In both cases, the researcher is able to visually amplify their work and share it with others.
Create a Visual Abstract
One way to use research photos is to augment a journal article with a visual abstract, which is a summary that uses images instead of text to briefly describe the findings of a study. Research photos can be combined with diagrams, graphs, animations, and text to provide a visually-rich overview of the study. These are images that enhance understanding of the research methods, study sites, potential applications, and other aspects, but are typically not included in journal articles because of page limitations and other constraints imposed by traditional formats (this may change to some degree with electronic publications).
A visual abstract can be created and published alongside the article as supplementary online material, on an independent media-sharing site, or on the author’s website. Once online, the visual abstract acts to attract attention to the paper and allows a deeper exploration of the research described in the text narrative. Most importantly, a visual abstract organizes your research photos to create a coherent narrative—something posting individual images of research cannot do as effectively.
A simple way to create a visual abstract is with a slideshow organized to take the viewer sequentially through each stage of the research. I’ve recently produced two visual abstracts using the presentation application, Prezi. These abstracts are designed somewhat like a poster or infographic, except instead of a static image, they are interactive.
PowerPoint, Keynote, or some other application might be used to create a visual abstract or infographic. I chose Prezi, however, because of its multi-dimensional, non-linear canvas, which lets you create an explorable document that also can be shared easily via a link or embedded in a website. With Prezi, you can arrange the “frames” in a single plane to create a pleasing overview and then use the “zoom” function to bring each frame into full view, creating a narrative.
There are many ways to design a visual abstract. The two examples I created used a simple design with one photograph acting as an anchor image and other images and text provided in frames positioned alongside the main image. I’ve embedded the two Prezi visual abstracts below.
The first visual abstract summarizes a paper to be published in the Annual Review of Marine Science. Even though this paper was a review, I was able to produce an informative visual abstract using photos (and diagrams) that illustrated various aspects of the review topic. The visual abstract distills the paper down to a few key points, which are covered in greater detail in the technical paper. Here is the direct link: http://prezi.com/dtfasu6khdti/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share
The second visual abstract summarizes a paper published in 2008 in the Smithsonian Contributions to the Marine Sciences. Although the paper was published seven years ago, the topic is still relevant. Unfortunately, the paper does not rank high in a Google search. Consequently, I decided to create a visual abstract to help raise the online visibility of the paper. My colleagues and I had taken hundreds of photos during that study that could be used to share information about the study location, the methods, the results, and the broader implications of the work. I selected the best ones and combined them with public domain images, graphs, and text to summarize the study. Here is the direct link: http://prezi.com/vaijezkevszk/?utm_campaign=share&utm_medium=copy&rc=ex0share
As I said, there are many ways to design a visual abstract. Here is another option, which I’ve made available as a free template on the Prezi platform. You can download it and then replace my images and text with your own.
After creating a visual abstract, you can send the link to colleagues or embed it on your website. The ideal approach is to create and post a visual abstract before or concurrent with publication of the paper. That way, the abstract can act like an advertisement for the pending publication and build a pool of potential readers. But there is no statute of limitations on visual abstracts, especially if you’ve got a library of photographs from previously-published studies.
Create a Visual Narrative
Although researchers in your field may be primarily interested in the technical aspects of your work, there is a larger audience of people who want to hear about what motivated you to conduct your study or what it’s like to conduct research on a tropical island in Belize. This group includes students, scientists in other fields, policy-makers, the media, and the general public. Scientists have compelling stories to tell that help others understand the nature of research as well as why scientific research is needed. Such stories are also helpful in getting the average person interested in science and in topics of critical importance to society.
A visual narrative, constructed with a series of photos, can be used to tell the “backstory” of a research project….an expedition to the Congo, for example (see below). Visual narratives can provide insights into a research project that typically do not make it into the journal article but are useful in conveying the challenges researchers faced in collecting samples, the beauty of the ecosystem under threat, or the broader impacts of the findings on society.
Such stories appeal to students and the general public and can get people interested in your research topic.
As you will see in the video below, the filmmaker used mostly still images to tell the story of how researchers from the Woods Hole Research Center studied the Congo River. This example shows that with some creative editing, photographs can be arranged to tell a powerful and effective story.
Some Practical Considerations
You may be wondering just how long does something like this take? In the case of the visual abstracts, the time required was about what it would take to put together a PowerPoint presentation. In fact, for the second visual abstract, I imported a PowerPoint slide deck, which I had previously used for a presentation, into Prezi and then simply rearranged the images and added text. You don’t have to use Prezi, but if you do, it is relatively easy to learn. If you already know how to use movie-editing software (iMovie Tutorial for iOS), creating a visual narrative of still images should not be overly taxing either.
Of course, to create a visual abstract or narrative, you must have the necessary images, and this takes planning. I got into the habit early in my research career of photographically documenting experiments and fieldwork. I made a list of photos I needed and then set aside time during a field trip to search out and snap those images. I took photographs not only of things related to my research but also of the plants, animals, soils, landscapes, and people I encountered. During long field expeditions (a week or more), I would typically spend an entire day just taking photographs. Back in the days of 35 mm film, however, I had to be somewhat parsimonious and carefully select what to photograph. Once digital cameras became available, I spent more time photographing—to document changes in the habitats I studied or to record visual features that might later prove useful in interpreting my results. Now, with phone cameras in our back pockets, it’s even easier to take, store, share, and reuse research photos.
As I’ve explained in a previous post, visuals can help make your research more visible online. Although you might present your research photos individually in an online repository, the viewer likely will have no understanding of what they are seeing or why it is important. I think it is much better to organize those photos to tell a story about your work. Visual abstracts and visual narratives are a great way to accomplish this.