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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Using Non-Textual Elements

The purpose of this guide is to provide advice on how to develop and organize a research paper in the social sciences.

Definitions of Common Non-Textual Elements

Chart -- see "graph."

Diagram -- a drawing that illustrates or visually explains a thing or idea by outlining its component parts and the relationships among them. Also a line drawing, made to accompany and illustrate a geometrical theorem, mathematical demonstration, etc.

Drawing -- a graphic illustration of representing a person, place, or object or a technique for outlining the geometry, layout, location, and design of a figure, plan, or sketch by means of lines.

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.

Form -- a logically structured document with a fixed arrangement of captioned spaces designed for entering, extracting, or communicating required or requested information.

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 [e.g., 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.” Created by WebFinance, Inc.

Importance of Using Non-Textual Elements

There are a variety of reasons for including non-textual elements 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 to read] 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 showing the distribution of health care facilities can be included 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.

Few, Stephen. Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten. 2nd edition. Burlingame, CA: Analytics Press, 2012; Informative Presentation of Tables, Graphs and Statistics. Statistical Services Centre, University of Reading, United Kingdom, March 2000; 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, maps, photographs, etc., to support your key findings. Readers should be able to discern the meaning of non-textual elements on their own without having to refer to the text to understand the data being presented. Reference to a non-textual element in the text of your paper should focus on describing its significance in relation to the research problem or the topic being discussed.

Non-textual elements must have neat, legible titles, be simple, and have detailed captions that are written in complete sentences; they should 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 non-textual elements to understand the paper.

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

  • Each non-textual element must have a short, descriptive title, numbered consecutively and complete with a heading [e.g., Table 1. National Sales Activity from 2009-2014].
  • Decide on a suitable font and caption format [e.g., bolded text] and use it consistently throughout your paper.
  • Either place figures, tables, charts, etc. within the text of the result being described, or refer to them in an appendix--do one or the other but never both.
  • You should explicitly reference the number of the figures, tables, graphs, etc. in the text [i.e., "Table 6 shows..."]. 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.
  • If you place non-textual elements in an appendix, make sure they are clearly distinguished from any raw data.
  • Each non-textual element must be commented on and its relevance and significance explained in relation to the research problem.
  • All non-textual elements should have a consistent look about them. This can be achieved by the following do's and don'ts
    • do use a box or frame to surround the element.
    • do not use a different text font to that used in the body of the work [e.g., Ariel vs. New Times Roman].
    • do use small caps when formatting headings.
    • do not use fancy fonts.
    • do change the page layout from portrait to landscape if this helps you display the non-textual element more effectively; always place the "top" of the page along the left-hand margin and maintain page numbering.
  • If the non-textual element within the text is not adapted from another source but totally your own creation, take credit for your work and say so! Otherwise, you must cite where you found the data. You must also cite the source even if you reorganize or rearrange the data [e.g., "Chart 4 is adapted from..."].
  • You may refer to non-textual elements by using parentheses with or without the verb “see” (i.e., "see Table 1"). However, it is important to be consistent with whichever choice you make.

References to non-textual elements are generally put in parentheses, e.g. "(see Figure 1)" or "(Chart 2)" 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 of non-textual elements, consider organizing them in an appendix.

ANOTHER NOTE:  Excel and other computer programs are capable of creating very elaborate, colorful, and dramatic looking non-textual elements. However, be careful not to let aesthetics and artistry overwhelm the message you are trying to convey to the reader. Use these features only to help enhance the reader's understanding of the information being presented.

Chapter 4: The Research Process: Structuring the Research Paper. Effective Writing Center. University of Maryland; Durbin Jr., Charles G. “Effective Use of Tables and Figures in Abstracts, Presentations, and Papers.” Respiratory Care 49 (October 2004): 1233-1237; Few, Stephen. Show Me the Numbers: Designing Tables and Graphs to Enlighten. 2nd edition. Burlingame, CA: Analytics Press, 2012; Franzblau, Lauren E. and Kevin C. Chung. “Graphs, Tables, and Figures in Scientific Publications: The Good, the Bad, and How Not to Be the Latter.” The Journal of Hand Surgery 37 (March 2012): 591-596; Hartley, James et al. “Research on Tables and Graphs in Academic Articles: Pitfalls and Promises.” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 66 (February 2015): 428-431; Informative Presentation of Tables, Graphs and Statistics. Statistical Services Centre, University of Reading, United Kingdom, March 2000; Rodrigues, Velany et al. How to Use Figures and Tables Effectively to Present Your Research Findings. Tutorials: Manuscript Preparation. Editage insights. Cactus Communications, Inc.; Tables & Figures. Academic Skills Office, University of New England; Using Figures, Tables and Graphs. Language and Learning Online, Monash University..