Krzywinski and Cairo reply:
We are in full agreement with the core of Katz's argument that “distortion,” “embellishment,” “concealment” and “unrepresentative displays” have no place in principled communication of scientific information1. There is no controversy here—Katz extrapolates our storytelling metaphor beyond the intended scope of our column and argues against a position we did not take.
The Points of View series offers effective strategies for visual presentation of complex data. The scope of the Storytelling column2 was limited to the construction of multipanel figures, which summarize as much as they support detailed exposition of the text. The column did not address how this text should be composed or the broad subject of motivation and design of scientific experiments. We described an approach to structure the flow of concepts and data across panels in a figure as a way to achieve a narrative, not confabulation.
The design of visual communication requires a distinct approach because we organize and interpret images very differently than words (Gestalt principles of perception3). Whereas text is a natural place for nuance and alternative interpretations, multiple lines of argument in a figure can easily interfere with our perception of all its parts. Our suggestion to “leave out detail that does not advance the plot” speaks to controlling the amount of information to avoid an incomprehensible image and deferring it to the text, where it can be more suitably framed. To interpret it as “inconvenient truths are [to be] swept away” is a misrepresentation.
Readers often look to the abstract and then the figures to provide them with an initial impression and overview of the findings. These are not the only elements that are reported, merely the first elements to be read. At each step, from abstract to figure to text, the level of detail is expanded to accommodate the preparedness of the reader to assimilate new information. It is often impossible to “do justice to experimental complexities and their myriad of interpretations” with a figure.
We support Katz's position that authors should include all the details necessary to appreciate, understand and reproduce the science through the use of visual and written communication that is clear, concise and thoughtful.
Katz, Y. Nat. Methods 10, 1045 (2013).
Krzywinski, M. & Cairo, A. Nat. Methods 10, 687 (2013).
Wong, B. Nat. Methods 7, 863 (2010).
The authors declare no competing financial interests.
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Krzywinski, M., Cairo, A. Reply to: "Against storytelling of scientific results". Nat Methods 10, 1046 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/nmeth.2700