Monday 1 January 2024

A Well-Constructed, Meaningful Table is Worth the Extra Money

As an adolescent I never liked chemistry because it didn't make any sense to me. Our high school teacher had us copy equations with strange symbols that seemed to strictly adhere to inexplicable and invisible rules whose full scope and mechanisms couldn't be shown to us students. This is also an experience that seems to be a relatively common one for the people that I've spoken to about the subject.
Now that I've actually learned some of those invisible rules and understand a reasonable amount about how chemistry works, I've come to the conclusion that a substantial part of the perceived difficulty of the natural sciences is partially a problem of graphic design.

And I'm not talking about the kind of 'scientific illustration' design, I'm talking bare bones letterspacing, kerning, tabulation, ink coverage and em spaces.
At its core graphic design is about the structuring of information. While many chemists I know are concerned with how to structure information, very few approach this problem in the same way a graphic designer does. Yet the graphic designer, on their part, rarely understands the context and content of the scientific texts presented to them. Without such understanding it is impossible to accurately structure that information for easier comprehension.

The problem of creating legible texts has naturally existed from the beginning of scientific publishing, especially to those who wish to standardise certain aspects.
The American Chemical Society, or ACS, thus first published its 'Handbook for Authors of Papers in the Research Journals of the American Chemical Society' in 1965. Most of this book is of course about naming conventions, how to write correct molecular structures, and so on. A small part is however concerned with what one would call 'design', even if it is in the abstract sense of the word. For example, the three page long section on tables contains phrases like: 'Tables should be self-explanatory and should supplement, not duplicate, the text and figures'; 'When numerical data are presented in columns, the decimal points must be aligned', and 'ruled lines and brackets may be used in moderation, particularly after column heads and stubs, but they should never be included as a substitute for good alignment, adequate spacing, or clarity.'

Such phrases echo those found in other more graphic design oriented reference works, such as 'The Elements of Typographic Style' by Robert Bringhurst, who has phrased the latter sentiment in the following manner in its section on tables: 'There should be a minimum amount of furniture (rules, boxes, dots and other guide rails for travelling through typographic space) and a maximum amount of information.'
This is perhaps a little more poetic than the previous expression, but both sentences nevertheless stress the fact that the form of the table should befit its content and that the legibility of that content should be the main priority.

Even if the ACS already considered the appearance of such 'table furniture' in 1965, this interest in graphical details quickly seemed to wane and a stronger focus on technical matters took hold.
A new edition of the Handbook was printed in 1978, now titled the 'Handbook for Authors of Papers in American Chemical Society Publications'. This revised edition no longer makes any mention of the appearance of the tables themselves, but further elaborates on the correct formatting of many technical aspects. It suggests, for example, to express multiple measurements in a table as a mean, rather than separate entries. At the instances when this revision does present new guidelines on the visual structure of texts, they are often of questionable merit, such as the suggestion that one should 'keep column widths of comparable size, whenever possible', which can hardly be considered a universal truth.

By 1986 the Handbook was superseded by 'The ACS Style Guide: A Manual for Authors and Editors'. This publication sees the problem of graphic design in terms of practical concerns such as the available space and technical reproducibility, not as an inherent factor contributing to the legibility of the presented information.
The section 'How To Construct Tables' starts with the inspiring reminder that 'tables are much more expensive to typeset than text; the larger the table, the more expensive. A well-constructed, meaningful table is worth the extra money, but anything else is a waste of money and does not enhance your paper.' Further considerations are insights such as: 'if you have three columns that do not relate to each other, perhaps the material is really a list of items and not a table at all' and 'if your table has alignment and positioning requirements, perhaps it should really be a figure'. Which are of course exactly the kind of universally applicable guidelines any chemist is looking for when attempting to construct a legible and concise table. 

The ACS Style Guide was last published in 2006 and kept the same technical focus throughout its lifetime. A general belief in technology solving the problems of design seems to be prevalent in the attitude of its authors. The section on tables in the 2006 edition remained largely unchanged, although it now had some tips on using word-processing software: 'In Microsoft Word or WordPerfect, use the software’s table feature, rather than aligning columns using the tab key. Entries arranged with the table feature are more likely to be properly aligned in publication than entries that have been tabbed.'
That this was very likely a useful tip to a number of their contributors gives some indication of how inexperienced your average scientist may be with genuine problems and solutions of design.

In 2020 the American Chemical Society replaced its style guide with 'The ACS Guide to Scholarly Information'. This is a completely rewritten digital-only guide, which in their own words is the 'go-to tool to help students, librarians, researchers, and educators communicate effectively'.
Unfortunately I couldn't tell you whether or not this 'go-to tool' has any clearer information on the uses of graphic design in scientific texts, as it is shielded by a prohibitively expensive subscription model which is separated from their other publications. While I have easy access to a number of the earlier editions through used bookshops and various libraries, no public or universitary library in Europe presently provides access to 'The ACS Guide to Scholarly Information', even if a large number of them actively subscribe to the journals of the ACS.
Ironically, the only two chapters the ACS provides free access to on their own website are the brand-new chapters on open access and inclusivity, which includes a subchapter on 'socioeconomic status'.

Thus while the importance of legible information is commonly acknowledged in various scientific fields, the large and constantly changing requirements from within those fields have kept scientists unable to focus on increasing the legibility of their work through graphic design.
In turn, the resulting body of poorly structured information has placed a significant cognitive burden on nearly all scientific texts, which has further complicated the transfer of information in fields that already require specific knowledge. Resolving this issue will however require editors with working knowledge of (various) scientific fields, as well as graphic design principles. Adding extra steps in the editing process will also cost time and effort, and therefore money, which is something no business is ever looking to do.
It is therefore unlikely that the issue of legibility in science communication, perhaps especially amongst professionals, will improve substantially over time.