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Organizing Academic Research Papers: Using Non-Textual Elements

Definitions of Common Non-Textual Elements

Chart -- see "graph."

Figure -- a form bounded by three or more lines ; one or more digits or numerical symbols representing a number.

Flowchart -- a pictorial summary  (graphical algorithm) of the decisions and flows (movement  of information) that make up a procedure or process  from beginning to end. Also called flow diagram, flow process chart, or network diagram.

Graph -- a two-dimensional drawing  showing a relationship  (usually between two set of numbers) by means  of a line, curve, a series  of bars, or other symbols. Typically, an independent variable is represented on the horizontal line (X-axis) and an dependent variable on the vertical line (Y-axis). The perpendicular axis intersect at a point called origin, and are calibrated in the units of the quantities  represented. Though a graph usually has four quadrants representing the positive and negative values  of the variables, usually only the north-east quadrant is shown when the negative values do not exist or are of no interest. Often used interchangeably with the term “chart.”

Histogram -- step-column chart that displays a summary of the variations in (frequency distribution of) quantities (called Classes) that fall within certain lower and upper limits  in a set of data. Classes are measured on the horizontal ('X') axis, and the number of times they occur (or the percentages  of their occurrences) are measured on the vertical ('Y') axis. To construct a histogram, rectangles or blocks are drawn on the x-axis (without any spaces between them) whose areas are proportional to the classes they represent. Histograms (and histographs) are used commonly where the subject  item is discrete (such as the number of students in a school) instead of being continuous (such as the variations in their heights). Also called frequency diagram, a histogram is usually preferred over a histograph where the number of classes is less than eight.

Illustration -- a visual representation (a picture or diagram) that is used to make a subject in a paper more pleasing or easier to understand.

Map -- a visual representation of an area. It is considered to be a symbolic depiction highlighting relationships between elements of that space such as objects, regions, and themes. Examples of types include climate, economic, resource, physical, political, road, and topographic maps.

Pictograph -- visual presentation of data using icons, pictures, symbols, etc., in place of or in addition to common graph elements (bars, lines, points). Pictographs use relative sizes or repetitions of the same icon, picture, or symbol to show comparison. Also called a pictogram, pictorial chart, pictorial graph, or picture graph.

Symbol -- Mark, sign, or word that indicates, signifies, or is understood as representing an idea, object, or relationship.

Table -- an orderly arrangement  of quantitative data in columns and rows. Also called a “matrix.”


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Importance of Using Non-Textual Elements

There are a variety of reasons for choosing to include a non-textual element in your paper. Among them are:

  1. A picture is worth a thousand words. Embedding a chart, illustration, table, graph, map, photograph, or other non-textual element into your research paper can bring added clarity to a study because it provides a clean, concise way to report findings that would otherwise take several long [and boring] paragraphs to describe.
  2. Non-textual elements are useful tools for summarizing information, especially when you have a great deal of data to present. Non-textual elements help the reader grasp a large amount of data quickly and in an orderly fashion.
  3. Non-textual elements help you highlight important pieces of information without breaking up the narrative flow of your paper. Illustrations, photographs, maps, and the like can be used as a quick reference to information that helps to highlight key issues found in the text. For example, a street map can be used to show the distribution of health care facilities in a larger study documenting the struggles of poor families to find adequate health care.
  4. Non-textual elements are visually engaging. Using a chart or photograph, for example, can help enhance the overall presentation of your research and provide a way to stimulate a reader's interest in the study.

Rodrigues, Velany et al. How to Use Figures and Tables Effectively to Present Your Research Findings. Tutorials: Manuscript Preparation. Editage insights. Cactus Communications, Inc.

Structure and Writing Style

Use non-textual elements, such as figures, tables, graphs, etc., to support your key findings. Readers should be able to understand non-textual elements on their own without having to refer to the text. They must have neat, legible labels, be simple, and have detailed captions that are written in complete sentences and that fully explain the item without forcing the reader to refer to the text. Conversely, the reader should not have to refer back and forth from the text to the figures to understand the paper.

General rules about using non-textual elements in your research paper

  • Each non-textual element must have a caption consisting of a number and a title.
  • Decide on a suitable caption format and use it consistently throughout your work.
  • Either place non-textual elements within the text, or include them in the back of the research paper--choose one or the other approach but never both.
  • If you place non-textual elements at the end of the research paper, make sure they are clearly distinguished from any appendix materials.
  • The number of the figures, tables, graphs, etc. in the text should explicitly reference the item. Avoid expressions like "in the chart on the following page" or "in the table below."
  • If you choose to place non-textual elements within the paper, they should be positioned as close as possible to where it is first mentioned in the text.
  • Each non-textual element within the text must be commented on and, if necessary, clearly explained.
  • All non-textual elements should have a consistent look about them. This can be achieved by:
    • using a box or frame to surround it.
    • using a different text font to that used in the body of the work [e.g., Ariel vs. New Times Roman].
    • using small caps when formatting headings.
    • avoiding fancy fonts.
  • If the non-textual element within the text is not adapted from another source but totally your own creation, say so! Otherwise, you must cite where you found the original.

References to non-textual elements are generally put in parentheses, e.g. "(see Figure 1)" because this information is generally supplementary to the results themselves; most of the text should focus on highlighting key findings.

NOTE: Do not overuse non-textual elements! Include them sparingly and only in cases where they are an effective means for enhancing and/or supplementing information already described in your paper. Using too many non-textual elements disrupts the narrative flow of your paper, making it more difficult for the reader to synthesize and interpret your overall research. If you have to use a lot, consider organizing them in an appendix.


Rodrigues, Velany et al. How to Use Figures and Tables Effectively to Present Your Research Findings. Tutorials: Manuscript Preparation. Editage insights. Cactus Communications, Inc.; Chapter 4: The Research Process: Structuring the Research Paper. Effective Writing Center. University of Maryland.