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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

Offers detailed guidance on how to develop, organize, and write a college-level research paper in the social and behavioral 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.; “Graphics for Display.” In Understanding Social Statistics. Jane Fielding and Nigel Gilbert, editors. Second edition. (London: SAGE Publications, 2006), pp. 69-93.

Using Non-Textual Elements

When to Use Non-textual Elements in Your Paper

The decision to use graphs, charts, diagrams, photographs, maps, illustrations, or any other forms of non-textual elements in the results section of your research paper should be a process of consciously considering whether any visual aids improve a paper's overall quality and readability. Do not include non-textual elements if the information can otherwise be described clearly and succinctly or if it does not contribute to understanding findings directly associated with the research problem. Below are examples of when you should consider or not consider using non-textual elements in your paper.


  • There is a Lot of Data. The most common reason why scholars choose to include non-textual elements in a study is that the research relies upon, or has generated, a large amount of information that needs to be summarized for the reader. This is especially true for studies using quantitative methods of analysis or that use surveys or other types of instruments for gathering large amounts of information or data.
  • Presenting Data Over Time. Charts and graphs are especially useful for visualizing changes over time. For example, to compare how exports in coffee has changed over time in two countries, you can display a line chart where the x-axis graphically displays the volume of coffee exported and a y-axis is the period of time in years. The chart would have two lines visualizing the data for each country. This allows the reader to quickly comprehend how much exports have increased or decreased over time.
  • Compare or Contrast Multiple Sets of Information. There are many types of charts, graphs, and diagrams. Many are particularly useful when you need to show how different sets of information compare or contrast with each other. This helps the reader contemplate the results of a study before moving on to the discussion section to consider why these differences may be significant and what the implications may be in relation to addressing the research problem.
  • Bring Important Clarity to Multi-layered Research Problems. Visual aids can highlight and bring clarity to understanding complex issues in ways that cannot be adequately expressed using only words. For example, a research study focused on documenting litter problems in city streets can include a GIS map that highlights the severity of the problem in particular neighborhoods in relation to the background and socioeconomic status of residents and the distribution of bus stops and other places where people gather. This allows the writer to summarize the information and focus on discussing ways to interpret the results.
  • Help to Reveal Patterns and Trends. A thorough description of patterns and trends that have emerged from the findings can over-complicate the narrative, making it difficult for the reader to follow the author's logic and main points. Non-textual elements can help visualize any patterns and trends within the data because it condenses this information in a way that allows the reader to quickly view the results, then focus on the narrative explanations of the key findings.
  • Picture is Worth a Thousand Words. Photographs have the ability to visually document not only a specific moment in time, but to convey the emotions, feelings, and unique experiences of people at the center of your study. In this way, photographs help to humanize a research problem. For example, if your paper examines how local indigenous populations in different regions of the world respond to climate change disasters, photographs can help convey the struggles and adaptive strategies of people more effectively than relying exclusively on descriptions of what has happened.


  • An important aspect of academic writing is the text must be clear and concise. If the data or information can be easily summarized, then adding a non-textual element is not necessary. For example, in the case of using a pie chart or bar graph to show only two contrasting numbers, such as, a difference in the number of charter schools versus public schools in a school district, would not help the reader understand the data any better than simply stating the difference in the text and moving on to explain why it is important [i.e., twenty percent of schools in the district are now chartered].
  • Always be aware of the narrative flow of your paper. Non-textual elements ask the reader to stop, review the non-textual element, contemplate what it means, and then return to the reading the paper, sometimes over and over again. Given this, always keep in mind the importance of conveying key information to the reader through the use of narrative explanations before inserting a visual aid. If you decide to insert a visual aid, note that it needs to fit logically within the overall narrative flow of your paper.
  • Adding a non-textual element should directly relate to understanding the research problem or main arguments of your paper. Visualizing information can capture the reader’s attention in ways that a narrative description cannot. However, you should always measure the importance of using a graph, chart, illustration, or other non-textual element against whether it adds explicit value to understanding the research problem. If you determine that it does not, then it is likely superfluous.
  • Avoid overloading your paper with non-textual elements. In many science disciplines, such as geology or engineering, it is expected that a research study will include numerous visual aids. However, in the social and behavioral sciences, you should be deliberate in selecting how many non-textual elements you include in the main text of your paper because using too many can be overwhelming and hinder comprehension of the essential arguments you are trying to convey to the reader. If you must include numerous visual aids, prevent cognitive overload by placing them in an appendix or appendices.

Figures and Charts. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Statistics and Visuals. Purdue Online Writing Lab, Purdue University; Chen, Min, Luciano Floridi, and Rita Borgo. “What Is Visualization Really For? In The Philosophy of Information Quality. Edited by Luciano Floridi and Phyllis Illari. Synthese Library, vol 358. (New York: Springer, 2014), pp. 75-93; Burgio, Valeria, and Matteo Moretti."Infographics as Images: Meaningfulness Beyond Information" MDPI Proceedings 1 (2017): 891; Few, Stephen. "The Chartjunk Debate." Perceptual Edge: Visual Business Intelligence Newsletter (April, May, and June 2011): 1-11; “Over 60 New York Times Graphs for Students to Analyze.” The Learning Network, The New York Times, Published June 10, 2020; Updated Oct. 23, 2020; “Graphics for Display.” In Understanding Social Statistics. Jane Fielding and Nigel Gilbert, editors. Second edition. (London: SAGE Publications, 2006), pp. 69-93.

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.

In the social sciences, 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].
  • Conform to the rules set forth within the writing style you are using for the paper regarding the use of non-textual elements [e.g., APA, MLA, Chicago] 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 interpreted 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 or cursive 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 and 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 within the text of your paper are generally put in parentheses, e.g. "...the number of schools have grown (see Figure 1)" or "...although the distribution of savings among city employees has been reduced during the last decade (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. and refer to them in the text, such as, "data shown in Appendix One shows...."

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 improve the reader's understanding of the information being presented. For example, if a pie chart is being used to show the distribution of responses to a survey, use distinctive colors to distinguish between each part of the chart.

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..