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A picture is worth 1000 words: Is scientific illustration a lost art?

A picture is worth 1,000 words, and there is perhaps no field where this is truer than in science. Behind the diagrams, there is a certain art that has enhanced scientific manuscripts for thousands of years. But what’s going on in the modern day, and how is controversy plaguing the field? In this feature, we explore the art of scientific illustration, and the developments that have changed the landscape.

The art of science

Figures are one of the most important parts of any scientific paper. Diagrams detailing complex concepts and structures date back millennia, and some of the most famous scientific advancements can be summed up by crucial figures. Among these examples are Galileo’s drawings of the moon, Darwin’s Tree of Life sketch and Odile Crick’s illustration of the DNA double helix following her husband’s discovery of the structure.

Figure 1: Galileo’s drawings of the moon. These sketches, from the 17th century, are some of the most famous scientific illustrations of all time.

Of course, hundreds, or even just tens, of years ago these images had to be drawn by hand. In fact, in the 1800s most images in scientific journals were sketched and then carved into wood by an engraver. The images were then inked and pressed into the pages. Some scientists may have taken the task of sketching their ideas into their own hands, whilst others left the visualisation to others – such as Crick. Photographs in scientific manuscripts became a staple throughout the 20th century, with famous examples such as Rosalind Franklin’s Photograph 51. However, hand drawn sketches remained a crucial tool for communication.

But as technology advanced and it became easier to create images on a computer, the art of sketching a scientific image became rarer. With precision being such a key element of ensuring the accuracy of a paper, using a computer to create diagrams where changes could be more easily made was a preferable method.

The modern day

A number of graphic design tools, like Adobe Illustrator, were developed in recent decades, and scientists took advantage of these methods. But without a background in graphic design or art, many scientists struggled using tools that weren’t specialised for scientific use. Hiring a graphic designer or specialised medical illustrator with the skills to create scientific figures was an expense that many labs couldn’t afford, so what was the solution?

In 2017, medical illustrator Shiz Aoki founded the company BioRender after receiving an untenable number of requests from scientists looking to hire her to make figures for their papers. Aiming to ensure that researchers had the resources to create their own graphics, Aoki’s BioRender is a web-based platform and software tool designed specifically for creating scientific illustrations and figures. It offers pre-made templates, icons and graphics tailored to the life sciences, allowing researchers to easily design high-quality figures.

BioRender has been widely used to create thousands of figures and the mission of the company is ‘to be the go-to trusted place where science is communicated, making science open, collaborative, and easily understandable by all.’ The tool can be used for free, for personal use and educational purposes, with paid-for licenses available to those looking to publish in journals or for commercial purposes. But, is there a catch?

The controversy

Despite many researchers paying high costs for licenses to use the tool, and thousands of figures being published in papers over the last seven years, there has been recent criticism on social media regarding the terms of BioRender’s licensing. Users have highlighted terms and conditions that suggest BioRender can claim copyright to figures created on the platform and have criticised the citation requirements. In addition, it has been pointed out that BioRender implicitly bans the publication of their figures under CC BY, a common license used in open access journals.

Below, PhD student Simon Duerr shows the impact of this in a Twitter thread, displaying the number of papers published that violate this agreement.

What did BioRender have to say about this? With a mission to help communicate science, Shiz Aoki responded to critical tweets clarifying that the company does not claim ownership of figures created on the platform, just their own icons and templates, and that the team would work to clarify wording in legal agreements. In addition, it was clarified in the thread that figures can be published under CC BY, with written permission from the company. But is this enough to turn people back to BioRender?

Illustrating a solution

Some scientists are now seeking alternatives to tools like BioRender due to the restrictions of the license – but the concerns around resources, time and skill remain. Do scientists really have the capacity to create precise, accurate and attractive images using advanced tools such as Abode Illustrator? And although new platforms may be on the rise, such as Mind the Graph or Bioicons, do they have the trust and appeal of a simple-to-use, ubiquitous tool like BioRender?

Going back to the days before these tools existed, scientific and medical illustrators were responsible for many of the stunning figures published in papers, textbooks and online. And despite the rise of easily accessible graphic design tools, the career is still a viable one today. The Association of Medical Illustrators claims that the field is growing, due to the exponential increase in ongoing medical research and the development of different mediums for design. But hiring a skilled illustrator is still an excessive expense for many scientists.

Perhaps a better question is, what should you not do?

An alternative route that some researchers have taken to create their figures is the use of generative AI. With the rise of tools like ChatGPT, Gemini and Co-pilot, AI-generated media is littering the internet in 2024. Some of this content is egregiously inaccurate, such as the figure at the centre of this controversy, which saw a paper filled with dubious AI-generated images and text published, and then swiftly retracted, in the journal Frontiers. As much as the practice of using AI may save researchers time, money and resources, ensuring not only the accuracy of scientific papers, but also the integrity of the peer review process, is vital.

Even more scary, perhaps, are the AI-generated images that fly under the radar. This news feature from Nature discusses the phenomenon of using these tools to ‘jazz up’ papers. But could the abandonment of true graphic design ultimately harm science? Should AI-generated images be allowed to permeate the scientific world, so long as they are properly cited and scrutinised for accuracy?

What are your thoughts on the topic? Are you a fan of open access tools, sketching your own figures or dipping your toes into the world of AI? We’d love to hear your thoughts on our new life sciences community – FOG Circle! Register here and tell us what you think

More on these topics

AI / Open access / Scientific Illustration