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The power of infographics in research dissemination
The power of infographics in research dissemination

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4 Evaluating infographics

While infographics can be an extremely effective research communication tool, the communicative power of infographics can also be deliberately harnessed to deceive; for example, by presenting a selective view of a dataset, designed to obscure or over-amplify key research findings. The competition for attention that exists on the web often means that research reporting – especially by journalists, but also by researchers seeking to enhance their professional reputation – tends towards simple, dramatic stories.

The disadvantage of infographics mirrors their advantage – that they present a quickly comprehensible picture of a subject, distanced not only from the raw data but also (perhaps more importantly) from the process of inference/analysis by which that picture is generated. This is why, when looking at any infographic, it is important to interrogate the data interpretation process, which the infographic actually makes it harder to see.

In addition, even when a researcher is intending to accurately represent their research, a disadvantage of infographics is that, although it is fairly easy to produce them, it is not so easy to produce them well. As a consequence, the internet is replete with some truly awful infographics masquerading as research reports – awful due to poor design, lack of background information, inadequate explanation and deceptive or inaccurate representation of numerical research data.

The critical researcher therefore needs a suitable strategy for evaluating infographics – a strategy that combines techniques for analysing any research with techniques more commonly used when engaging with visual art.

In his article, ‘The many-faced infographic: Brooklyn, elephants, and the visualization of data [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ’, data visualisation guru Alberto Cairo tells us that:

One of the keys to designing effective information graphics is to accept that function constrains form. This means that, if your goal is to communicate well, the visual shape you make your data adopt is not primarily a matter of aesthetic preferences, but should depend on the questions readers may want to get answered, or on the tasks they may wish to complete.

(Cairo, 2013)