Presenting tables and figures


Clarity is obviously a major aim when presenting data in journal papers. In almost every study of why nurses do not read journals or use them in developing their practice, respondents say that they have difficulty particularly with understanding statistics and are put off by this aspect. It is therefore important for authors to present research data in as user-friendly a format as possible so that readers can benefit from the information. We try to improve the presentation of tables and figures by copy-editing papers, but this can be an onerous task.

As part of our regular updating of information for authors about submitting papers to JAN, we have devised some more detailed guidelines on presenting tables and figures. These may be found at and are shown below. We have not reinvented the wheel, but have drawn on generally accepted conventions and principles for data presentation.

Generally, a simple presentational format is best with figures just as it is with words and sentences in the main text of a paper. So busyness – too many lines dividing rows and columns, or a fussy background – should be avoided. At a more basic level, complex formatting will be reduced when the typesetters draw up the proofs of articles, so authors can save themselves time but not putting these there in the first place!

We hope that these guidelines will help authors to present their data with maximum clarity, with the objective of making their work more accessible to readers. We welcome feedback on the guidelines, as on all aspects of our author information. More information about this aspect can be found in most statistics textbooks, and a particularly concise and readable source is a little book by Bigwood & Spore (2003).

All tables and figures

  • • Simple and easy to follow tables and figures are best. Too much ‘clutter’ gets in the way of understanding your main message.
  • • Check the journal guidelines:

– Is there a limit on the number of tables or figures you can use?

– Does the journal use colour, or black and white?

– Does the journal recommend using a particular file format when supplying electronic figures?

  • • Place the tables and figures at the end of the article. Do not put them within the text – they will be placed appropriately when the printers draw up the proofs.
  • • Refer to all tables and figures in the text, for example (Table 1); Figure 2 shows that…
  • • In the text of the article, pick out the highlights or main points that the table/figure is telling your readers.
  • • Number tables and figures in separate sequences, e.g. Tables 1 and 2, etc., Figures 1 and 2, etc.
  • • Give each table/figure a concise heading that summarizes its content.
  • • Try to avoid abbreviations. If they are essential, give them in full in a footnote to the table, even if you have already explained them in the text.
  • • Each separate table/figure should ‘stand alone’, i.e. should be understandable with having to refer back to the text;
  • • Give the number of cases/sample size to which the table/figure refers, i.e. n = xx
  • • Do not put a ‘box’ around tables and figures.

For tables

  • • Make sure that numbers, especially if they have decimal points, line up properly – using right justification for these columns is the easiest way to do this.
  • • Round figures to 2 decimal places, except for statistical significance levels.
  • • If you are indicating that some numbers represent statistically significant differences, give the test used and significance level – preferably in columns of the table rather than footnotes.
  • • Give column and row totals where appropriate.
  • • Avoid ‘busyness’– do not use lines to separate columns.
  • • Only use lines to separate rows if the rows deal with different types of variable, e.g. age, income, nursing qualification.

For figures

  • • With figures, avoid decorative ‘background’, e.g. shading, patterned bars – use plain white, grey or black.
  • • Two-dimensional figures work best.
  • • Label both axes of figures.